After a disastrous lecture, Sheldon turns to Penny for acting advice, while Raj definitively answers any lingering questions about his sexuality

By Adam B. Vary
February 04, 2011 at 11:00 AM EST
Sonja Flemming/CBS
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As any true Big Bang theorist will tell you, some of the show’s very best episodes orbit around the twin stars of Sheldon and Penny. Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco have maintained deft control over their character’s priceless chemistry, never letting it tip too far towards curdled contempt or cutesy will-they-or-won’t-they “romance.” The episode last season when Sheldon had to help an injured, and naked, Penny get dressed before taking her to the ER is a perfect example of that balance. Last night’s episode was another. And we’ll get to discussing Sheldon and Penny in good time. But what I really want to talk about right now is Raj.

There was a moment last night’s when my boyfriend turned to ask me a question I imagine many of you were asking yourselves or your own significant others at that same very moment: “Wait, is Raj coming out?” The moment, of course, was after Leonard commented on how broken up Sheldon was over being ridiculed by his students for a guest lecture Sheldon didn’t even really want to give. “I know the feeling,” sighed Raj. “It’s like accidentally walking into a gay bar and then having no one hit on you.” Between that joke, the front yard/back yard joke from two episodes ago, and Raj and Howard puckering up last November, and you could easily be forgiven for wondering if the writers were slowly inching our beloved Dr. Koothrappali out of the closet.

Even after Bernadette called Raj a cutie, his protestations — “Cute is for bunnies. I want to be something with sex appeal, like a labradoodle!” — weren’t exactly the most archetypically hetero. But then Bernadette called Raj “sexy,” and it was as if a musty switch buried deep within Raj’s woman-loving libido was suddenly, finally switched on. Our first tip something was, ahem, up was after Howard, with Bernadette standing at his side, announced to Raj that he’d landed a two-year fellowship in Israel — and Raj responded verbally, with no alcoholic beverages in sight. I guess it was too much to wish that Bernadette’s words had boosted Raj’s confidence enough to allow him to talk with women; instead, it was simply Raj’s daydream that Howard was asking him to satisfy Bernadette’s “needs” — “most of them regular, some of them kind of messed up” — while he was away in Israel.

“What are you thinking so hard about?” asked Howard, breaking Raj from his reverie.

Replied a still-dazed Raj: “Just that I’m definitely not gay.”

It would’ve been easy for the show, and Kunal Nayyar, to go for the softly homophobic punchline and deliver that “I’m definitely not gay” line with a sense anxious relief. Instead, Nayyar gave the line just the right touch of neutral-if-dazed self-discovery, although I’m still left wondering if the show abandoned a gold mine of comic possibilities by placing Raj’s sexuality so definitively among the straight folk.

NEXT: Big Bang goes Bollywood, and Penny “breaks” Sheldon

Indeed, his next fantasy — that Howard had gotten into a likely fatal scooter accident and asked Raj to take care of Bernadette, sexually — just felt like a way to shoehorn the too-often-underutilized Johnny Galecki into another scene, and make a few passing jabs at the Sci Fi Channel rebranding itself as Syfy. And I have a sneaking suspicion as many of you loathed the surprise climactic Bollywood musical number as loved it — or, like me, perhaps you were mildly tickled by the sequence while still regarding it as perhaps a bit much. Although I did find it pretty cute that even in his fantasies, Raj is one dorky dancer.

Performance of a different sort, meanwhile, was the preoccupation of Sheldon, after a guest lecture that went so badly Howard described it as “the Hindenberg meets Chernobyl meets Three Mile Island meets Tron 2.” (Oof, fanboys can be harsh. I mean, sure, TRON: Legacy was no Matrix, but it wasn’t exactly a Matrix Revolutions, either.) After Amy Farrah Fowler emptied her “quiver of whimsy” attempting to cheer Sheldon up via video chat to no avail, she suggested Sheldon seek out acting training. So Sheldon sought out Penny.

Thus unfolded easily my favorite Penny/Sheldon scenes of the season. It’s hard to single out even a healthy handful of delicious moments: Penny’s (momentary) glee at knowing more about a subject than Sheldon; Sheldon’s declaration that “My body and I have a relationship that works best when we maintain a cool, wary distance from each other”; the improv scene that shifts from a shoe store to a shoe store that also sells frozen yogurt to a state mental hospital to two winos under a bridge and finally back to a frozen yogurt store.

And then there was Sheldon’s Star Trek fanfic opus, Where No Sheldon Has Gone Before, an epic tale of a young genius trapped in backwoods Texas who’s whisked away to the 23rd century by a certain half-Vulcan science officer. Except, in an attempt to break Sheldon out of his comfort zone, Penny suggested she play Mr. Spock, and Sheldon play his mother. Now, on the one hand, the argument could be made that Sheldon Cooper should not be nearly as funny and nimble and charming an actor as Jim Parsons is. On the other hand, I can easily forgive hedging verisimilitude if it means we’re treated to the sight of Sheldon so quickly becoming his mother, and subsequently spiraling into such a psychological regression that Penny phones up Sheldon’s real mother because she “broke” her son. “Mommy, I love you! Don’t let Spock take me to the future!” Annnnnd Jim Parsons’ 2011 Emmy reel is good to go.

What did you make of “The Thespian Catalyst,” fellow Big Bang theorists? How does this episode rank in the grand Penny/Sheldon canon? Were you surprised to learn Penny actually kinda knows some stuff about acting (as opposed to waitressing and leaving her clothes everywhere)? Did you think Raj was going to come out until it was clear he wasn’t really ever “in” to begin with? How do you feel about Raj’s newly unimpeachable straightness? Will his lust for Bernadette abate, or deepen? Were you aware “kmn” means “kill me now”? And does one pronounce “Syfy” as “siffee” or “cyfee”?

Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, Raj, and Wolowitz, Amy, Bernadette—the gang keeps growing. Bazinga!
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