Over the past seven seasons, The Big Bang Theory has grown to become a nerdy West Coast version of Friends, so it’s no surprise that this week’s competition-centric “The Scavenger Vortex” is reminiscent of Friends’ classic “The One With The Embryos.” Both episodes spotlight the series’ tight ensemble casts by putting the characters in increasingly tense circumstances, and while Big Bang’s paired scavenger doesn’t have the high stakes of Friends’ apartment game show, the mismatched couples bring focus to some of the less defined relationships on the show. For example, this is the first time Amy and Howard have been alone together, and while they initially struggle to find common ground, their love of Neil Diamond brings them so close together that they ultimately ditch the scavenger hunt to go sing “Cherry Cherry” at a karaoke bar.
After everyone ignores Raj’s latest attempt to hang out with all his coupled friends, he convinces the gang to participate in a scavenger hunt by appealing to their university rivalries. Note how Raj’s group activities put him in a decidedly inactive role, whether it’s as the dead body at a murder mystery party or the organizer of this scavenger hunt. Raj isn’t aching for personal attention, but rather wants to manipulate his friends because he doesn’t have a romantic partner to exert control over. Separated from their usual partners, the characters get a taste of what their friends have to deal with on a regular basis, which can be a positive thing (Amy and Howard) or a negative (everyone else). For Leonard, that means learning that Bernadette turns into a madwoman during any sort of a competition, but Penny gets saddled with Sheldon, so she doesn’t learn anything new; she just has to deal with Sheldon’s usual quirks.
Amy and Howard have the easiest time, understanding that there are no real stakes in finding Raj’s gold coin and instead taking the time to bond as friends. The writers really love that Neil Diamond joke, and while the song references offer diminishing returns, Mayim Bialik and Simon Helberg earn kudos for committing to some passionate lip-syncing. It looks like they’re having a lot of fun on screen, and sometimes, that’s all that’s needed to make a sitcom C-plot successful. While Howard has the ideal partner in Amy, Leonard has to deal with a crazed Bernadette, who grew up with five brothers and sisters and really doesn’t like to lose. When Leonard threatens to quit the competition, she tells him that Penny constantly refers to him as a “pussy,” an untruth that does its job and motivates Leonard to action. (The show can’t actually say “pussy” at 7 p.m. on CBS, but it’s clear that’s the word.)
Bernadette’s words tap into Leonard’s persistent fear that he’s not good enough for Penny, and while it’s a complete lie, the fact that Bernadette would use that as her weapon shows Leonard that his fears aren’t completely unfounded. Unfortunately, that’s a storyline this show has covered over and over again, and this episode retreads it along with the familiar territory of Penny trying to prove to the others that she’s not an idiot. Penny solves puzzles by grabbing whatever pieces connect and putting them together whereas Sheldon always starts with the corners first. Penny finds clues by looking for something out of place in a lab and looking under it whereas Sheldon goes through every word of a riddle to deduce the location. Everyone gives Penny shit for being stupid, but she just does things differently. And in the case of puzzle clues, she has the advantage of not needing to put every piece together before moving on with the hunt. But this has all been covered before, so can we move on?
The scavenger hunt antics are enjoyable, but it’s hard not to wonder why these people have gotten so passionate over a competition that has no reward, especially when it’s overseen by Raj, that guy they barely tolerate. Ultimately, the complete lack of stakes is the punchline when Raj reveals that the gold coins were in everyone’s pockets the entire time, making them all winners in the game of friendship and fun. Competition brings out passionate comic acting from the cast, but unlike in Friends, all that energy doesn’t build to any pay-off at the end. There’s not even the simple satisfaction of a team getting named the victor. The reward for these players is another reason to hate Raj, who either needs to get himself a girlfriend or seriously reconsider his party planning.
- The group doesn’t want to say “pussy” in front of Sheldon, but this is the same guy who says he doesn’t like putting his fingers in bowling balls because it’s basically like giving a rectal exam on the street corner. Sheldon could probably handle some bad language.
- This episode ends in the best possible way: a freeze-frame of Amy and Howard jubilantly jumping in the air during karaoke. I hope this pair ends up together more often, although the writers should lay off Neil Diamond references for a while.
- “As my mom used to say, ‘When you’re doing a puzzle, it’s like having a thousand friends.’ She was full of fun lies like that.”
- “Yes! It’s not a ruse to make fun of me. It’s a real game, and I’m winning it!”
- “So no one’s going to buy anything.”