NOTE: HEAVY SPOILERS AHOY
The arc of a television show (in the United States) goes from inception, to finding itself and its voice, escaping the early installment weirdness and so forth - to a maturer story arc where the characters are far more known to the audience, as well as the writers and actors. in contrast to the United Kingdom, where a show has its entire story arc written out and is executed in one or two seasons and then put to bed while people clamor for more - the United States generally mines its properties as long as money is made, and they have to evolve on existing premises.
The television show The Big Bang Theory, either hated for being nerd blackface or loved for humanizing a bunch of dysfunctional geeks - hit its second story arc end with the episode "The Opening Night Excitation", which aired for the first time on December 17, 2015.
The show's initial premise (back when it was called "Lenny, Penny and Spenny", which explains why though they changed the awkward nerdy fellow's name to "Sheldon" from Spencer, kept the other two names) was to mine the awkward meeting of worlds that came about when fresh-in-from-flyover-country would be actress and hot girl "Penny" met her new neighbors, awkward Cal Tech physics researchers and bona fide nerds. Having found the voice, they set up the first story arc - Leonard, a short awkward and bespectacled nebbish professor has fallen head over heels for the hot girl, only they've not just only in different leagues, they're in different sports. Will they or won't they get together? There's only so many times you can have them finally get together, make love, break up, make up, and are they going to get married arc, so having mined that thoroughly (and finally marrying off Penny to Leonard) they had to move on.
Part of the pathos and the comedy of the show involves the romantic foibles of the male cast. People assumed that short, nerdy Jewish engineer Howard and in the US on a visa doctoral astrophysicist Raj were gay because of their close friendship matched with their shared awful game with women. Howard tries to come off as a comedian and alpha male (while riding a scooter, wearing dickies and being five foot two) whereas Raj for the longest time literally could not speak around a woman. Vulcan clone Sheldon seemed completely asexual. The various men were paired off: Howard with a don't think too hard, she's quite scary short blonde Bernadette, whom he married. Raj has finally found his voice around women without alcohol and has had some girlfriends.
Sheldon remained the final frontier.
Part of the charm of watching a show is finding a character you can identify with, or at least sympathize with. Watching him or her grow and change and deal with new and unexpected challenges is part and parcel of the experience of a show. The one constant who had not done any real growing, but instead had his character's backstory thoroughly fleshed out - was Sheldon Cooper. Until very recently.
Sheldon Cooper, as brought to life by the inimitable Jim Parsons (who nailed his initial audition so fiercely they brought him back just to make sure it wasn't a fluke) is a near-non functioning autist, a childlike prodigy whose manic obsessions, need to control the environment around him, and strange and peculiar quirks call back to "Felix" in "The Odd Couple" - whose sexual orientation if any is unknown. Having worked in Silicon Valley and meeting the genuine article in academia in and outside of California, can attest, these people exist.
Originally a foil for the ever-suffering everyman Leonard, Sheldon as a character for the longest time didn't develop forwards but backwards. As opposed to changing, we simply learned more about what made him who he was. In the hands of a lesser actor Sheldon simply wouldn't have worked as a character - naliing the specifics of "you're in my chair" or an Aspergers-level demand to only get specific products from specific places is easy. Making that character vulnerable and human is not. One of the primary reasons why the tantrum of a toddler, for example is tolerated is in part that we recognize this is a person in pain, not someone trying to be a jerk - and Jim has always colored his character's quirks with a core humanity that makes you understand why Leonard not only has stayed with him for so long as a friend and roommate, but geuinely feels for him and worries about him.
And over the years we got to hear that backstory. Sheldon, the lonely autistic weird kid surrounded by oilfield trash in East Texas, misunderstood at least and bullied at most for being different. A strong atheist raised by a single mother who ran from her no-good drunken husband into the arms of a holy roller revival fundamentalist Christian church. As a child he tried to provide the town with free electricity by building a reactor in the shed: presumably because he saw his own family or neighbors unable to pay the power bill, only to be interviewed by police. Being able to send him off to a university on scholarship in his teens was probably a godsend to his mother, finally able to get him out of literally the worst possible place for someone like him to be born, but as we've seen in real life, many a teen prodigy in science has turned out to have a disastrous, lonely life. You learn to socialize with the opposite sex in junior and senior high - he would probably have seen hookup culture and frat parties at an age where he was too young to process what was going on or be involved in- with budding hormones nonetheless.
All this changed when a one-time gag turned into what may very well be the final story arc.
Hiring Mayim Biyalik out of Blossom (now retired from acting and working as a neurobiologist, with a Ph.D in same) as a one-off to play Sheldon's distaff counterpart, "Amy Farrah Fowler" - a supposedly one-shot deal to make a joke about how it would be impossible to find a match for someone like Sheldon in online dating, and suddenly here she is - the same parcel of neuroses and quirks only wearing cardigans and below-the-knee skirts. She became a cast member, which may have added some stress to her now-defunct marriage. In the past few years she started out as a Sheldon-like counterfoil for the female cast of Bernadette and Penny, able to one-up the boy autist with oversharing about women's things that managed to double-squick the entire cast (for example, nonchalantly admitting she wears feminine hygiene at all times of the month to be constantly prepared).
This is when I really began to take notice, because in my experience, I've not only met the Sheldon Coopers of this world, I've also met the Amys. It never occurred to me that social isolation would be doubly cruel to girls, who really do bond a lot and are very quick to sideline or marginalize girls they deem different. And to the writers' credit, they mined that territory, having Penny realize that her high school bullying of lesser girls hurt real, actual people. They hold a slumber party simply because they find out Amy's never been invited to one. With VERY awkward results.
The cliffhanger at the end of the previous season was Amy breaking up with Sheldon. She'd come to love him, and was patient with his asexual tendencies and quirks - but finally walked out realizing there was no point in pursuing a relationship where she wasn't getting the physical contact she needed. As she walked out, Sheldon pulled out the engagement ring he had obtained and pondered what to do next. It was a heartbreaking moment but a real shocker out of left field.
In that quiet, untelegraphed moment, you saw that he really really did care extremely deeply for Amy, and this season's repeated attempts at a reunion of the two represented the final piece to the Big Bang puzzle. Sheldon couldn't bully, manipulate, cajole, or argue his way back into her life, he had to finally accept a certain amount of vulnerability.
It's a very very long preamble to talk about the episode, but the context and backstory are necessary for a node about what happened next to be complete.
The Opening Night Excitation takes its name from the fact that all four of the Big Bang Boys (Raj, Howard, Leonard and Sheldon) obtain tickets to the very first showing of the new Star Wars movie. When Penny casually reminds him in the midst of him detailing his plans for that day (he's taken the day off so he can start it with Star Wars cereal, watching the original trilogy, etc.) that it's his girlfriend's birthday, he at first tries to legalistically argue that since he bought the ticket when they were still broken up, it doesn't count. But that night he is visited by the ghost of his childhood father figure, Professor Proton (played by the ever-understated Bob Newhart) who still cannot understand why he has to appear at all, never mind dressed in Jedi robes. He convinces Sheldon that putting his girlfriend first is the right thing to do, as opposed to pursuing gratification with Star Wars.
So the following day, he asks Bernadette and Penny (treating his Asperger's "Knock, person's name, knock, person's name, knock, person's name" by having the other person answer) their opinion on what he should get Amy for said birthday. The choices are either getting the philharmonic to have her sit in and play harp with them, indulging her interest in knitting by sending her to a sheep farming festival in Wisconsin alone, or coitus.
Realising that this represents a huge step for the intimacy and touch-averse Sheldon, Penny shatters the wine glass she's holding in the shock of what she's just heard.
They convince him, readily, that this is the route he should take. And the episode sets rapidly in motion towards the culmination of what is probably the final story arc - Amy and Sheldon having sex. They wisely do NOT tell the men of their circle that this can and will happen, and they blissfully head off to Star Wars with Wil Wheaton in tow using Sheldon's ticket. Because Sheldon recognizes the possibility of being heckled or bullied by other men in this regard, he is left to confide his concerns and feelings to Professor Proton, who shows up again that night in Jedi robes even more annoyed the second time. When he finds out Sheldon wants to discuss sex, he attempts to disembowel himself with his light saber in a gag that the understated Bob Newhart nails perfectly, with a deadpan line about it being worth a shot. The best part of the gag is that we're not quite sure if Professor Proton is the actual ghost of a man who met Sheldon once and was really weirded out by him, or the projection of Sheldon's unconscious.
Proton stammers something about removing "bloomers" and Sheldon interrupts him saying he's familiar with the mechanics of such things - for which Proton is extremely grateful. "I don't know what the kids call their... parts these days". Sheldon deadpans back "I think they call it junk". Proton shakes his head, aghast at the state of what the world is coming to. Sheldon isn't concerned about the mechanics of same at all - (unusual for a character in media) - he shares his concerns about sex not meeting the expectations he's built, or for hers for that matter. Proton says if it's the right person, it will work out. Sheldon falls back to sleep happy.
Meanwhile the girls are trying to solve a problem - getting Amy ready for her birthday gift, without spilling the beans. They suggest going out and getting a bikini wax, then watching some dirty movies and if she of course has any questions she's welcome to ask. Amy is thoroughly confused by this, not picking up on the girls' suble attempts at communicating without communicating. They finally have to admit to her that Sheldon is planning on being physically intimate with her, which causes her to at first sink to a seated position in shock, then enthusiastically launching herself with her female best friends towards the waxing salon.
Meanwhile the boys are in the theater echoing the same sentiments about the new Star Wars film, especially given Wil Wheaton showing up to heckle in a Star Wars uniform and Spock ears. Wheaton tries to tell them it's just a movie, and maybe they've built it up too much. The gag here was lost on some reviewers, who saw the terribly sweet building up of nervous first sex juxtaposed with concerns that there might be another Jar-Jar Binks. But what they miss is that many nerds sublimate their sexual desires towards technology. It's right back to Nerds 101: I remember as a youth watching two far older nerds trying to look at an advertisement involving a photo of a naked woman, staring intently with a magnifying glass between her legs. Because what was obscuring what most men would be looking for was a handheld device of some Palm-Pilot/Blackberry type this was advertising - and they could barely make out the screen or what it looked like. The episode was about how most nerds nestle calmly in the warm arms of fandom or tech, and meanwhile here's this lone autist deliberately climbing out of it to make his girlfriend's birthday special.
Sheldon proposes going to dinner, but Amy is having none of that. She confesses she knows what he plans to give her, and wants to skip straight to the presents.
The scene that follows is something I'd been thinking about with great interest for years in terms of how they'd execute it.
Jim Parsons and Mayim Biyalik are very very good friends in real life.
However, he is gay, and she is a Jew of some Orthodox/Conservative sort that they've made concessions about in the scripts in the past: Amy has never said "Oh God" and her wardrobe has always covered her arms and her legs in accordance with her religion. One wouldn't be concerned about staging such a thing with Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco for example, who actually dated and were intimate in real life, and who would probably be alright with anything that network broadcasting standards would allow. Given that the writers have always been sensitive to the needs of its staff, that's when I particularly leant forward.
But when she nervously shows up out of the bathroom in a nightgown, even her shoulders are uncovered. I was stunned. This represents a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the actress that I haven't seen anyone else applaud. The remainder of the scene was explicit enough in certain ways but not in others that keeps the requisite polite distance from the subject matter as well as taking in the very real human needs of the actors into consideration.
She expresses concerns that it won't live up to her expectations and she's embarassed she has no idea what she's doing. Sheldon touchingly puts his hand on her and reassures her that they'll learn together.
Smash cut to the theater, in which the boys are practically lolling in their seats in a parody of sexual exhaustion, obviously having really really enjoyed the Star Wars film. They contrast this with Sheldon, whose hair is its usual immaculate self, whereas Amy's hair makes her resemble Robert Smith of The Cure. He exclaims that it was even better than he'd hoped, and he can't wait for her birthday next year so they can do it again. She's too contented to argue, saying that completely works for her.
The scene, in essence, completes the series, and this may very well be the jumping of the shark. Obviously, they're going to continue the series: American TV does this until there's no more money to be wrung from the dessicated corpse of what the show atrophies into. But just as how the Big Bang Theory writers surprised us with the engagement ring, and then the breakup, they may very well have a few more tricks up their sleeve. They've built up story arcs with Sheldon and Leonard, Penny and Leonard, Howard and Bernadette, and now Amy and Sheldon. Raj is open for a story arc of his own - and he's enough of an established character that it won't be like That 70s Show awkwardly pairing Fez and Jackie for the finale. There's a lot of loose ends around the series, and a lot of meat to work with: which means that, as usual - for this franchise a moment that looks like it closes the book on the series for good may turn out not to be.
And a shout-out to Bob Newhart, who in two short, stammering appearances completely stole the show.