The Big Bang Theory: "The Table Polarization"
B+

The Big Bang Theory: "The Table Polarization"

Everyone manipulates everyone else on a delightful episode.

Change is scary. The tiniest modification in one’s behavior or surroundings could have a dramatic, unforeseen impact, so it’s best to keep things exactly the same for as long as possible. That’s Sheldon Cooper’s belief, and he staunchly stands by it when Bernadette suggests he and Leonard get a dining room table, an idea Leonard, Penny, and everyone else supports. The table represents a larger issue as this week’s episode continues, symbolizing the ways these characters manipulate each other to get what they want. Sheldon manipulates Leonard so that he can keep the apartment in status. Amy manipulates Sheldon so that he doesn’t break up with her. Bernadette manipulates Howard so he won’t want to go back to space. They all have different methods of exerting control, and when the opportunity for real change appears, they’re successful in diverting attention back to the status quo.

“The Table Polarization” is one of those rare episodes not directed by Mark Cendrowski, and there’s more visual variety than usual thanks to Gay Linvill’s staging and camerawork. The cameras are forced to show different angles because the plot involves using a largely unexplored area of Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment, and Linvill puts more characters in frame to show better group reactions. The visuals on a three-camera sitcom can become incredibly repetitive, and this episode proves that introducing variation, no matter how minimal, can boost a story’s momentum. Change is scary, but it can also be beneficial, which is why the group should start sitting at Leonard and Sheldon’s new dining room table, no matter how much Sheldon complains. And boy does he complain.

When Sheldon goes into a long description of chaos theory to explain why he doesn’t want to get a table, Penny asks Leonard for the translation: “Wah! I don’t want a table,” he translates, and while some of this is definitely Sheldon being a brat because he likes to get his way, there’s also the fact that Sheldon’s (unconfirmed) autism makes it difficult to deal with change because that’s just the way his brain is wired. Leonard is aware of this after living with Sheldon for years, but he just doesn’t care anymore. Sheldon has protested change before and it ended up working out just fine, most notably with the couch that Sheldon is so adamant about staying on now, so Leonard knows that getting a dining room table will most likely work out just fine. Leonard just needs to wade through a river of bullshit in order to get to that point, and with Penny by his side, he has more determination than ever.

When Leonard buys the table, Sheldon realizes that he needs to up his game and accuses Penny of changing his roommate and pitting him against him, revealing just how calculating he can be by admitting that he’s spent years turning Leonard into the “perfect conduit for his will.” He confesses that he’s changed Leonard over the course of their time together, and Penny reminds Sheldon that’s how all relationships work. In fact, dating Amy has changed him. Before Amy, he could barely touch a person, and now he’s holding hands and making out on trains. Amy has made Sheldon a more compassionate, open-minded person, which means she has fundamentally changed his personality and that is unacceptable. He decides that he needs to break up with Amy because of this revelation, but Amy is ready for him when he arrives at her door.

Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons already have great chemistry on this show, and the shifted dynamic in Amy and Sheldon’s scene makes their performances even more energetic and layered. Leonard and Penny have warned Amy of what’s coming, so she turns the tables and tells Sheldon that this is all just Leonard’s latest manipulation, a strategy to get Sheldon away from the one person that supports his table hatred. Bialik has a lot of fun being in control of the scene for once, and Amy’s excitement over her situation builds as she continues to string her boyfriend along. Amy loves the power, and she ends up being the one that gets Sheldon to accept the couch because she goes too far and suggests he move in with her. A couch is nothing compared to that type of change. 

In a telling moment at the end of the episode, Bernadette sees Sheldon and Amy eating on the couch while everyone is seated at the dining table and feels sorry for them. Leonard’s response to her pity: “Don’t anthropomorphize him. He’s got big eyes, but his feelings are not like ours.” It’s a joke, but he’s also being serious, because the only way for Leonard to stay strong in his roommate relationship is by taking an apathetic view that doesn’t consider Sheldon’s feelings. If Leonard did, then Sheldon would walk all over him. Unfortunately, not everyone has come around to Leonard’s mode of thinking, and the sight of sad Sheldon and Amy ultimately forces the group away from the table and back to the couch.

Howard’s B-plot offers another opportunity for change, even though it’s a change that already happened in the past and wasn’t very successful. He gets a call that the piece of equipment he installed on the satellite last year needs to be repaired and NASA would like him to go back into space, and he’s eager to take this second trip despite hating his last voyage into orbit. With the help of Raj, her father, and one of Howard’s astronaut partners, Bernadette bombards Howard with evidence against him returning to space, and while he tries to be strong in the moment, once he ends up in a doctor’s office undergoing a physical he realizes what a horrible decision a space trip would be. It’s an inconsequential subplot that rehashes the anxieties expressed by Howard, Bernadette, and company at the end of last season, but repeating a subplot feels appropriate for an episode all about sticking to routine.

Stray observations:

  • Love that moment in the cold open when everyone offers condolences to Penny when she mentions that she went on an audition. Penny’s sad acting life is always fun.
  • It’s hard to believe this entire episode went by without one reference to Gravity. They were trying to convince Howard not to go repair a satellite in space. It’s the perfect opportunity!
  • Would Sheldon really have the patience to sit at a computer running Windows ’98, even if it’s to make a point?
  • “Oh sure! I sit on the floor for years, no one cares. The pretty white girl sits there and suddenly we’re running to Ikea.”
  • “Show me one thing in here we could live without.” (Leonard takes picture of Sheldon on cameraphone.)
  •  “Oh, Sheldon. You didn’t have a personality. You just had some shows you liked.”
  • “I’m not surprise you want to end the relationship. I’m a little surprised you didn’t get Applecare.”
  • Amy: “You’re sick of his nonsense and ready to move in with me.” Sheldon: “Keep the table! We don’t use that space!”
  • “You know how astronauts have to have the right stuff? Your stuff is wrong.

More TV Club