It’s not very often that The Big Bang Theory tries its hand at less conventional storytelling, and when it does do something more experimental, it does so within a very traditional sitcom model. “The Cooper Extraction” sees the characters imagining various “What if?” scenarios around what their lives would be like without Sheldon Cooper, and while it’s a fun little distraction from the usual Big Bang fare, it also reveals that the series is strongest when it sticks to what it knows best and doesn’t try to think outside the box. The writers don’t have much material for the imagined scenarios, so they rely on long-running jokes for punchlines (Raj and Howard are creepy together! Stuart is lonely and sad!), and when that’s not an option, the script switches to Lowest Common Denominator mode and puts Penny in a bra and the boys in fat suits.
When Sheldon flies to Texas to fill-in for his sister’s husband during her home birth, the rest of the group takes advantage of his absence to break all his stupid rules, like an ornament template that keeps Star Trek and Star Wars ornaments on different branches. They have a good time poking fun at Sheldon until Amy comments that they probably wouldn’t be friends if it weren’t for Sheldon, prompting everyone to wonder aloud how specific situations would be different under these new sets of circumstances. It’s no surprise that this alternate timeline isn’t integrated seamlessly into the story like Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” but instead comes into play when characters look wistfully ahead and describe the set-up for what’s to come when the camera blurs and jumps to the imaginary past.
In honor of the holiday season, the writers try to do an It’s A Wonderful Life-styled episode about what the lives of these characters would be like without Sheldon Cooper, but the clunky execution of “The Cooper Extraction” prevents it from achieving the emotional resonance the script is aiming for. The alternate reality scenarios are a mixed bag; the best is Howard’s Psycho-inspired story about what would happen if he still lived with his mother, and despite being a flagrant display of pandering to the show’s straight male audience, the scene where Kaley Cuoco takes her top off and flirts with Sheldon is pretty great because of Jim Parsons’ reactions. There’s nothing particularly bad with the alternate reality flashbacks, but there’s a predictability that diminishes the fun of watching them unfold.
Penny and Bernadette imagine meeting Leonard and Howard without Sheldon as an icebreaker, and quickly come to the conclusion that they would have ignored the nerds if they encountered them at Cheesecake Factory. Leonard would be too awkward and passive for Penny, and Raj’s overly intimate relationship with Howard would scare Bernadette away. Without Leonard, Penny stays with her ex-boyfriend Zack, who is stupid and poor, and without Sheldon, Leonard lives with Raj and gets fat (first fat suit). Then Raj imagines himself fat (second fat suit). Fat suits are apparently hilarious so the tag of the episode throws Leonard, Raj, and Howard into them, beating a dead joke that wasn’t funny in the first place.
The episode does manages to squeeze some emotional substance from the person who would be affected most heavily by the loss of Sheldon: Amy Farrah Fowler. While the scene of Amy sitting alone with a single candle in a cupcake on her birthday is a little much, it shows how deeply Amy cares for her friends and the importance of their presence in her life. To reward her intense dedication, Leonard shows Amy that she means more to Sheldon that he would have her believe, opening up Sheldon’s laptop to reveal that Amy has joined Swamp Thing and Marie Curie as one of the images on his screensaver. (The development is so appreciated that I’m willing to excuse the absurdity of Sheldon leaving his laptop at home when he goes back to Texas.)
The screensaver reveal is a great little moment that continues this season’s trend of pushing Sheldon outside of his comfort zone to bring more affection to his relationship with Amy, and when he returns home and Amy asks if he missed her, he replies that the trip would have been better if she had gone with him. He adds that it also would have been better if she went instead of him, but the fact that he tells her that her company would have proved beneficial to the experience is a pretty big step for a character that struggles with personal connections. It may be hard to maintain a relationship with Sheldon, but “The Cooper Extraction” proves that this group of friends is better off for knowing him.
- Leonard has a history of video game emergencies that have required him to go to the E.R. Man, he just gets more and more pathetic.
- I really hope we get a chance to see the 50-pound bag of rice wearing Sheldon’s t-shirt that keeps Amy company when her boyfriend isn’t around. That has to be a very creepy visual.
- “Listen! That is not the way they normally look.”
- Howard: “I lived with her to save money.” Raj: “Yeah, you didn’t have to buy groceries because you were breastfeeding.”
- “Wait, did she die or did you kill her?”