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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Big Bang Theory observes "The Countdown Reflection"

In the season finale of CBS's The Big Bang Theory, "The Countdown Reflection," the time has arrived for Howard (Simon Helberg) to go into space. But as Howard awaits launch time in the shuttle with fellow astronauts Michael J. Massimino (himself, a real NASA astronaut) and Dimitri (Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Bent, Deadwood), he reflects back on the past few days, and his hurried, but special, wedding to Bernadette (Melissa Rauch).

I'm not a fan of the way this episode is structured. Though it's always worth giving props to series for taking risks, The Big Bang Theory works better in its normal format. The regular story in "The Countdown Reflection" is fine, living up to the usual standards set by the show. But the scenes of Howard in the shuttle, while amusing, don't really fit. The gags take away from the emotional state that Howard is in, and it doesn't come together as well as it should.

That being said, the end of "The Countdown Reflection" is one of the best scenes of the show. As Howard's six friends watch him on the television, Bernadette grips Raj's (Kunal Nayyar) hand. Howard's best friend and new bride take comfort in each other, leaning on each other in a time of stress and worry. Then Penny (Kaley Cuoco) takes Leonard's (Johnny Galecki) hand, their silly fight over his stupid mid-coitus proposal, and her poor handling of the situation, forgotten in their concern for Howard. Lastly, Sheldon (Jim Parsons), who shuns physical affection and human contact, is even moved enough to take Amy's (Mayim Bialik) hand, a fact that certainly does not go unnoticed by the attention-starved girlfriend.

It's impossible to even write about this scene without tearing up, let alone watch it dry-eyed. Chuck Lorre comments on it in his ending title card, and even the cheesy "aw" reactions by the live audience don't spoil the powerful effect. It's raw and it's moving beyond words. This is a scene of pure human emotion at its best, friends clinging to each other in a seminal moment. This is, without a doubt, one of the most monumental bits The Big Bang Theory has ever done, or will ever do. Bravo!

Now, assuming Howard makes it back all right, which, jokes of a defective shuttle aside, he surely will, The Big Bang Theory will return to its routine. In this case, that's fine. "The Countdown Reflection" is not a chance for a game changer ignored. Howard's marriage and mission will be part of the character from now on. But, far from forcing drama and new directions just for the sake of audience engagement, The Big Bang Theory instead chronicles an extraordinary event in the life of an ordinary man, and will continue to follow him after. Life goes on. The mission is special, and gets the attention it deserves. But then things will return to normal. Some series should go with the death, but The Big Bang Theory doesn't need it.

"The Countdown Reflection" has some fun moments, such as Amy trying to steal the spotlight for herself, including by wearing her maid of honor dress to City Hall. Bernadette's father (Casey Sander, Grace Under Fire) gives her away in anything but the traditional method. Sheldon insists on performing part of the ceremony in Klingon.

But there are also some things missing. Why is Bernadette's mother only shown in the big zoom out, the actress left unrevealed? And keeping Howard's mother (Carol Ann Susi) offscreen is wrong. Yes, there is enough going on in this episode that the big, first glimpse of her is not necessary. But it's Howard's wedding! And the others yelling to her, while staying consistent with the character, doesn't really fit in the solemn occasion.

So, overall, an uneven episode. The truly fantastic is mixed with the disappointing. Still, better than most shows on TV! The Big Bang Theory will return next fall to CBS.

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