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The Big Bang Theory is at its best and worst in a milestone episode for Sheldon

The show's breakout character is no longer a virgin. Burn it upon the skies.

Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik) finally sleep together in the latest Big Bang Theory.
Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik) finally sleep together in the latest Big Bang Theory.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Big Bang Theory may be the most old-fashioned show on television.

I don't say this because it's filmed with multiple cameras in front of a live studio audience; both CBS's Mom and NBC's The Carmichael Show have proved you can do great, innovative things within that format if you're so inclined. No, I say this because, on some level, the show is built entirely atop hoary old clichés and stereotypes.

Consider: When the show began, its entire premise was about whether a group of nerds — and we're talking capital-N Nerds — would be able to relate to the capital-HG Hot Girl who moved in across the hall as a human being instead of just somebody who was incredibly attractive.

And yet this initial premise has evolved into a weird sort of primer on social interaction, one that occasionally gives all the characters short shrift but nevertheless manages to suggest ways of relating to other human beings to those who might struggle. Eventually, though, it always reverts to jokes that boil down to, "Oh, those Nerds. What will they do next?" Even when The Big Bang Theory is at its best, Nice bumps up against Nasty, Sweet against Bitter.

And nowhere is that more evident than in "The Opening Night Excitation," in which Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), the show's breakout character, and his girlfriend, Amy (the terrific Mayim Bialik), have sex for the first time.

Sweet moments, buttressed with eye rolls

Amy on Big Bang Theory.
Amy learns that Sheldon will be spending her birthday with her.

The Sheldon half of this episode is surprisingly sweet. When he learns that the release date of the new Star Wars film coincides with his girlfriend Amy's birthday (and, as it just so happens, with this episode's original airdate), he realizes he must give up his ticket to spend time with her, and the gift he wants to give her is something she's been asking for for ages — physical intimacy.

In many ways, Sheldon is The Big Bang Theory's petty tyrant, forcing others around him to acquiesce to his will. That they do is source of most of the show's humor, but it only works because Parsons is skilled at playing Sheldon's more vulnerable side in moments like this one.

Guided from beyond the grave by his childhood hero, Professor Proton (played by Bob Newhart, with icy blue Star Wars hologram glow), Sheldon comes to realize that sex doesn't have to be a terrifying thing. If you're with the right person, it will be fine. And when he first broaches the topic with Amy, he even makes sure to get her verbal consent. It's like a basic introduction to a lot of the messy topics related to personal autonomy and sex that have so dominated public conversation in the last few years.

But the rest of the episode is kinda mean

The Big Bang Theory.
The guys go to see Star Wars with Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame.

The other storyline in "The Opening Night Excitation" centers on the rest of the guys going to see Star Wars, and their reaction to the film is compared, jokingly, with Amy's reaction to finally getting to have sex with her boyfriend. Nerds! They get so much fulfillment from pop culture! How silly! Can you believe these guys?

I understand that The Big Bang Theory is a comedy, and that it's one of the biggest shows on television, so it clearly knows something of what it's doing. But sweetness comes so effortlessly to the series that I always wonder why it feels the need to devote half of its storylines to being mean and vaguely condescending toward its characters. It's like the show swings, wildly, between embracing them and thinking they're fools for caring about what they care about.

The Big Bang Theory is very much in its dotage right now. At this point of its life cycle, it's pretty much the show it will be until it finally ceases to be profitable. But it's still frustrating to see an episode that's ostensibly about a major psychological breakthrough for one of its characters butted up against some dumb, goofy bullshit, even if that's the show's MO. A Big Bang Theory that took its characters' inner lives seriously all of the time instead of just for one storyline every few episodes probably wouldn't be as big of a hit. But at least it wouldn't inspire whiplash.

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