This season, The Big Bang Theory has become better than ever thanks to the writers taking a more empathetic look at Sheldon Cooper, giving the viewers a better idea of how his mind and heart work so that he doesn’t come across as a totally apathetic asshole. “The Itchy Brain Simulation” continues that trend when Sheldon forces Leonard to walk in his shoes via itchy clothing. After discovering that Leonard never returned a Super Marios Bros. Movie DVD that was due to the video store seven years ago, Sheldon agrees to not make a big fuss if Leonard wears an itchy sweater with nothing under it until he returns the film. The physical discomfort Leonard feels wearing that sweater is akin to the mental discomfort Sheldon feels whenever faced with an unresolved problem, and it’s a brilliant way of forcing both Leonard and the audience to understand the constant frustration Sheldon feels.
Everyone who’s been hoping for an episode of Johnny’s shirtless torso will have a lot to love in this week’s episode, or at least they will when he first puts on the sweater. After that, his torso turns into a red, rash-covered mess, providing the perfect visual representation of Sheldon’s mental itching. (Penny has the episode’s best reaction to Leonard’s rashes: “Oh my god, is that sweater made of bees?”) Sheldon’s discomfort can’t be taken off like a sweater, though—it’s something that he’s always had to live with, and if he can make Leonard understand that, then maybe he can strengthen their relationship.
In a timely development considering the recent Blockbuster news, Leonard can’t return the DVD because the video store chain has closed, so he has to find a way to reimburse the owner. Of course, it won't be easy. The owner of the defunct business is defunct himself, and he died with no next of kin for Leonard to pay back. Penny tells her boyfriend to just take the sweater and accept the loss, but his pride won’t let Sheldon win. Her response is one of the episode’s best lines (spoiled by last week’s preview): “Sweetie, every night you don’t kill him in his sleep, he wins.” As you’ll see below in the stray observations, this episode is one of the most quotable of the season, if not the entire series, and the constant flurry of hilarious one-liners shows just how strong a handle this cast has on the comic beats of the dialogue.
As Leonard drifts into rash-covered madness, Sheldon never shows any sign that he’s bothered by the unreturned video, which is a pretty good sign that things are not as they seem. Sure enough, the reason Sheldon doesn’t freak out about the DVD is because he paid the late fee seven years ago and has been keeping the movie around for a teaching moment just like this one. It’s an excellent twist that puts Sheldon in the diabolical position of power that he loves so much, but it’s difficult to argue with the results of the lesson. And as we learned last episode, Leonard and Sheldon are together for a reason: they’re both broken, and their friendship allows them to heal the other’s flaws.
In this case, Sheldon is not only teaching Leonard about empathy, but pride. He ultimately didn’t have to wear that sweater at all, but he didn’t want to let Sheldon win, and he suffered because of it. Granted, Sheldon could use an empathy lesson of his own, because he’s completely oblivious to how Amy has felt during the entirety of their relationship. After he tells Amy about how it was hard to keep that video a secret, he asks, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to wait for years and never know if you’re finally going to get satisfaction?” Yes she does, but she hasn’t found an itchy red sweater equivalent to make Sheldon feel her pain.
Not only is the Sheldon/Leonard main story a delight, but the Raj subplot also works very well, reintroducing his ex-girlfriend Lucy (the always welcome Kate Micucci) when she visits The Cheesecake Factory and has the misfortune of getting Penny as her waitress. In a move that Penny perceives as standing up for her friend, she confronts Lucy and the shitty way she broke up with Rajesh (by e-mail), making the sheepish girl leave the restaurant in tears. Raj is initially infuriated that Penny has ruined his chances of getting back together with Lucy, but when his ex texts him asking to get coffee, he’s elated.
This is the first time Raj is meeting up with one of his exes in hopes that they can become friends, or preferably rekindle their relationship, so he goes to Bernadette and Howard for guidance about what he should do. They tell him that he can say he missed her if she asks, but that he definitely can’t show her the painting he’s made of the two of them surrounded by their children and grandchildren. When he meets Lucy for coffee, he clearly believes that they are getting back together, and that’s when she drops the bomb that she’s seeing somebody else. Raj hasn’t been able to move on with his love life because he’s been hung up on Lucy, and this announcement is exactly what he needs to hear in order to move forward. “The Itchy Brain Simulation” is all about the characters learning valuable lessons that will help them become better people, resulting in an excellent episode that offers strong character insights while also providing plenty of laughs.
- Thanks to TiVo cutting off the end of my recording, I didn’t see what happened during this episode’s tag. I assume it was something involving Raj’s storyline, but feel free to fill me in on what happened in comments.
- Poor Sheldon. Spent all those skee-ball tickets on a trick flower that doesn’t even work.
- Riki Lindhole and Kate Micucci, a.k.a. comedy-folk duo Garfunkel & Oates, were responsible for that delightful Bernadette musical number from “The Romantic Resonance.” It’s nice to see Micucci doing more for this show than just playing Lucy.
- Penny: “For some reason I always pictured her as Indian.” Bernadette: “I think that reason’s called racism.”
- “He can’t walk a mile in my actual shoes. He has the feet of a toddler.”
- Howard: “You had to be taught not to play with cobras?” Raj: “You had to be taught not to burn down the forest?”
- Penny: “I wanna say salmon.” Amy: “You wanna say ‘sorry.’”
- “How come the key is always confidence? How come it’s never love handles and flop sweat?”
- “I lit a candle and prayed for your death, but I’m not Armenian so it probably won’t work.”