In an old-school sweeps move, "Big Bang" pulled a bit of stunt casting and brought back TV legend Bob Newhart to reprise his role as the gangs' beloved childhood icon Professor Proton. The Professor, AKA Arthur Jeffries, is a former kids' science show host that was last seen in May being hired by Sheldon and Leonard for some quality time. Newhart went on to win his much-deserved first Emmy award for the role and his performance in tonight's episode only reinforces his merit. The man's comic timing and line delivery at 84 has clearly not waned and "Big Bang" manages to use him in a mostly constructive way.
At the top of "The Proton Displacement", Sheldon, Leonard and Amy run into Jeffries at the pharmacy on "Restock the Medicine Cabinet" day. Sheldon is thrilled and in a move foreshadowing his behavior to come he decides he won't bother him ... he'll talk to him instead. Immediately Newhart's presence is felt, not only in the audience's retro applause for the great actor, but in his perfectly measured responses. If they were going to make the man a recurring cast member today, I would be very on board. Need further convincing? The punchline before the credits is just him sighing. And it works. Despite the abundance of old jokes, Newhart uses his age to his advantage and provides a perfectly exasperated foil to Sheldon's antics.
The Professor Proton plot that follows concerns the aging scientist asking Leonard for help with a research paper and Sheldon getting jealous. Yes, Sheldon repeatedly asking if he's annoying is annoying, but the writers carefully dole out Sheldon's worst tendencies. They then counter those tendencies with the others getting genuinely mad and/or Dr. Cooper failing marvelously. Amy almost confronts Sheldon about his annoying personality, and though she doesn't, we can see that she so badly wants to. In contrast, Professor Proton has no problem confronting him and shutting the door in his face. All of this leads to Newhart's character asking Leonard why he puts up with Sheldon. Though it's been addressed before, it was great to see the show hit this question head on again. It feels earned following Sheldon's misbehavior and stirs some true emotion from Leonard.
Sheldon responds to Professor Proton's rejection by calling up a TV scientist of his own. In a clever meta turn, Dr. Cooper enlists Bill Nye the Science Guy. Fresh off a spin on "Dancing With the Stars", Nye has been making it a habit of turning up on broadcast TV recently. The show gets a lot of mileage playing their fictional TV scientist off the real TV scientist. The Nye of "Big Bang" was inspired by Professor Proton apparently, but Newhart's character only sees it as a ripoff act. The jokes around this premise were among the best of the episode (much better than most of the old jokes made about Newhart previously) and this may have been the 84-year-old's best scene of the half hour. It also gives the show an opportunity to take Sheldon down a notch when his plan to use Nye fails miserably.
Round two of Sheldon versus Newhart wraps up with Professor Proton coming to understand Sheldon, apologizing to him and then not getting mad when he finds out that Sheldon hacked into his email account. That last part didn't come across as believable to me, but the episode would have had to be twice as long to unpack that move. Sheldon returns the favor by calling his paper "inspired" and the two plan their revenge on Bill Nye. How sweet.
Over in our B story that doesn't involve TV legends and kids' show scientists, Howard hijacks Raj's girls' night. Howard's oblivious eye to his best friend's suffering felt unusually cruel -- and bordering on Sheldon-esque behavior. Wolowitz really walks all over him and it's pretty painful for most of the episode. (Also, that Jewish joke. Yikes.) Thankfully, Howard comes to and they remember why they're best friends. This story does yield some hilarious moments though, such as Penny's delightful inability to use glue and Amy declaring Howard and Raj will have sex before she and Sheldon. As for those light saber belt buckles? I wouldn't be surprised if they show up in stores by Christmas.
"Big Bang" followed up one of its strongest episodes with another solid entry. Any episode that includes Bob Newhart, Bill Nye and electronic light saber belt buckles is alright by me. It didn't feel like a major step forward in character or plot development, but it was a fun outing that didn't jeopardize real emotion. We're in desperate need of a funny Penny A-story I'd say, but with Newhart around who's going to complain?
"The Big Bang Theory" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.