Let’s venture back into the mists of time, to the faraway lands of Seven Years Ago, when Leonard had long hair, the elevator at the apartment complex still worked, and Penny’s apartment was occupied by a hulking transvestite (and even he thought that that skinny dude across the hall was crazy).
“The Staircase Implementation” was The Big Bang Theory’s big flashback episode, returning us to the day when Leonard answered Sheldon’s ad for a new roommate, and he took the position even though Sheldon’s departing roommate warned him to flee (and left behind a big “Die Sheldon Die” painted on his bedroom wall for further emphasis). Of course it wasn’t a slam-dunk for Leonard. Sheldon grilled him about elementary physics—Quick! What is the sixth noble gas?—and subjected him to three barriers of roommatehood, each more daunting than the last. Leonard had to choose between Kirk and Picard. (Correct answer: Picard, but otherwise Original Series over Next Generation.) He had to decide whether his first objective after an apocalyptic event would to be to find food, reestablish government, procreate, or preserve mankind’s knowledge. (Correct answer: Anything but procreation.) And he had to agree to schedule his bowel movements for 7:30 in the morning. (Though Leonard almost blew it there when he sais he usually just moves his bowels “when I have to.” Sheldon doesn’t rent to hippies.)
Back in the present day, Penny, hearing this story from Leonard, asks him why he didn’t bail on Sheldon right then and there. And Leonard replies, quite reasonably, that the apartment was conveniently located, reasonably priced, and appealingly spacious. Also, “After you pass the first three barriers, you kind of want to take it all the way.”
To some extent, “The Staircase Implementation” represents the laziest kind of sitcom writing. Rather than telling a new story, the writers mine the past, where they can make easy jokes about bygone cultural events and the origins of their own show’s conventions. But I liked this episode a lot, for three reasons:
1. It was funny.
Sure, the jokes about days-gone-by may have been easy to whip up, but they had just the right angle, whether it was Sheldon insisting in The Roommate Agreement that they watch Firefly on Friday nights in perpetuity—because “it’s going to be on for years”—or him tapping away at length on his Palm Pilot to retrieve a simple e-mail. The gags there aren’t just, “Hey, remember 2002?” They’re, “Look at how comfortably certain—and wrong—we can be about things.” The jokes also served a larger purpose that I’ll get to in a moment, as did the little bits of story about the origin of The Couch, and how Raj (in a disco suit!) and Howard (with a soul patch!) came to join the gang.
2. It was plotless.
Yes, a lack of a plot is usually a misstep in a narrative medium. But one of the things I’ve always liked about The Big Bang Theory is that it charts its own unique course, unafraid to end an episode with a story unresolved (and with no plans to return to it ever again). It makes the act of watching BBT different from other sitcoms; since I know the writers aren’t building to a big payoff, I never know exactly where they’re going to wind up. (Usually, that is. This season’s had a few too many plot-driven, predictable episodes.) The second half of “The Staircase Implementation” was all about explaining how Leonard was responsible for destroying the apartment’s elevator thanks to a bad batch of homemade rocket fuel, but the journey from rocket fuel to exploding elevator was a blessedly brief one, presumably because the writers figured that we at home would connect the dots quickly. Instead, they threw in a much funnier secondary gag, introducing in the first act Sheldon’s “apartment flag”—a gold lion rampant on a field of azure—and then in the second act having him turn it upside-down to signal that the apartment’s in distress, shortly before the elevator goes boom. Nicely done.
3. It was touching.
Maybe it was just me, but when Leonard, Raj, and Howard got fed up with Sheldon and bailed on him, I felt really bad for Mr. Cooper (even though he himself seemed thrilled by the peace and quiet). I also thought that the initial reveal of Sheldon’s apartment—as a bare space occupied by a couple of lawn chairs, a tiny TV, and a bunch of whiteboards—was more sad than funny. The real purpose of those jokes about Sheldon’s Palm Pilot and the like was to show that even a static character like Sheldon can change in subtle ways. Whether Sheldon appreciates it openly or not, Leonard has filled in his life for him, bringing comfort and companionship. “The Staircase Implementation” didn’t hammer this point home, but it did a nifty job of showing what a stand-up dude Leonard is, whether he’s taking over the task of painting Penny’s toenails for her or he’s forcing Sheldon to adjust to the company of humans.
A lot has changed about Sheldon, Leonard insists at the start of the episode, and “The Staircase Implementation” showed that well. Seven years ago, when Leonard made a joke about Sheldon’s choice of words, Sheldon marked it against him. Now, Leonard would know to punctuate the joke with a helpful, “Bazinga!”
-I know, I know. It’s 2010 now, and “seven years ago” would be 2003, not 2002. But Firefly debuted in the fall of 2002 and was off the schedule by the start of 2003. Plus, it makes sense that Leonard would be looking for an apartment before the beginning of the fall term. And given that Penny didn’t find it weird for Leonard to paint her toenails—or vice-versa—I’m going to say that this episode actually takes place in 2009, before the break-up. Just go with me on this.
-Two degrees can be the difference between water and steam.
-“Are you asking me or telling me?” “Telling you?”
-In The Roommate Agreement, Sheldon and Leonard make a deal that if either of them invents a time machine, they’ll return to the past to five seconds after the agreement is signed. When those five seconds pass, Sheldon mumbles, “Well, that’s disappointing.” (Aside: My very Sheldon-like 8-year-old son has been fascinated by time travel lately. The other day he scraped his elbow pretty bad, and choking back tears he told us, “This would go away if I could just go back in time!”)
-In the scantly furnished pre-Leonard apartment, Sheldon’s lawn chair existed in a state of eternal dibs, under a bit of obscure Latin phraseology that translates as, “My chair, my rules.”
-Sheldon’s disgusted that Leonard would initiate coitus with a woman he met less than 12 hours ago. He’s even more disappointed in the woman: North Korean spy Joyce Kim.
-“You’ll be sorry you wasted money on an iPod when Microsoft comes out with theirs.”
-It’s not a turtleneck, it’s a dickey.
-Sheldon blocked Leonard with his spam filter after Leonard forwarded him a picture of a cat playing a piano.
-Seven years ago, Penny was in high school, taking pregnancy tests.
-You don’t screw the roommate agreement. The roommate agreement screws you.