There comes a time in every sitcom's life when it does a "what if" episode. This is a matter of fact. There is no way around it. If you're not familiar with the concept of a "what if" episode, its meaning is quite literal, the characters or the show imagines a scenario different from its usual situation. Sometimes, as in this case, it uses It's a Wonderful Life as a template or jumping off point. What if we all never met? What if so-and-so was never born? You get the idea. The Big Bang Theory is getting up there in years, so it's not surprising that they finally reached the point where they had to resort to this plot device. And it's Christmas time, so It's a Wonderful Life was apt. That said, this was a really fun episode that allowed the cast to stretch and play some funny, zany moments while providing genuine, surprising emotion at the end.
"The Cooper Extraction" followed one major story all the way through (if you can call it that), but was broken up into two pieces -- the "what if" scenes in which the gang imagines their lives without each other and Sheldon's trip home for his sister's childbirth. While it was the episode's inciting action, the latter was much less significant so let's start there. The Sheldon runner, of him being disgusted by his sister's natural childbirth and Skyping with his friends was only mildly amusing. It relied a little too heavily on gross-out humor and Sheldon being obnoxious. But some of the funnier jokes of the night came from these circumstances including Raj declaring he was gay, and Sheldon complaining about "people coming out of people" and becoming the janitor of his sister's birth canal. Was all of this necessary? I don't know. I suppose Sheldon could have been "extracted" by any means, but at least the show was able to derive some humor from it.
Back in the apartment, the gang now minus Sheldon has got to thinking what their lives would be like without him. As far as "what if" episodes go, this premise was actually pretty loose. The circumstances of who was missing from whose lives was fluid and allowed the cast to do much more in their fantasy sequences. We also got the added bonus of each fantasy coming from a specific character, which reflected back on them. It started with Penny arguing that Leonard could never have picked her up at the Cheesecake Factory if Sheldon wasn't in his life. From there we got to see Raj and Howard getting a little too close without Bernadette, Zach and Penny together without Leonard, Penny hitting on Sheldon without Leonard (so awkward), Howard fantasizing about his mom being dead, Raj fattening up Leonard if they were roommates, then both of them in fat suits and finally Amy crying into a cupcake because she never would have met any of them. As the episode went on the fantasies grew from vaguely realistic to outright nonsense. This show doesn't do fantasy sequences all that often, but it's always enjoyable when they do.
Kaley Cuoco and Mayim Bialik deserve special mentions for their parts in all this. Cuoco played a different Penny in every one of her fantasy sequences. The juxtaposition of her being cold to Leonard in the dream sequences played nicely off their loving relationship in the real world, and her aggressive seduction of Sheldon was perfectly awkward and weird. Bialik on the complete opposite side of the spectrum again brought the emotional goods. The show has found a lot of humanity in Amy and her seemingly one-sided relationship with Sheldon. Showing her crying into a cupcake was heartbreaking, but made her finding out that Sheldon does care about her only more earned. She carries it through to the final scene, despite having mostly punchlines to play off. For a character that started as an emotionless clone of Sheldon, Amy and Bialik have sure come a long way.
"What if" episodes aren't the most high form of TV comedy. They're often a fallback for shows long in the tooth, but "The Big Bang Theory" managed to avoid what could have been a disaster. If we look back to the Thanksgiving episode, this installment proves that getting the gang together works if the plot isn't too ambitious. Not much story moves forward in "The Cooper Extraction" but it wasn't missed at all. These characters are fun to be around even in their minutiae. The banter and the wacky, fast-paced fantasy sequences were enough for the entire 22-minute episode. And now I've got to go buy some towels at Bed Bath and Beyond.
Follow Alex Rabinowitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alexrab