For a show of this age and this magnitude to be this creative and this clever in its seventh season is a remarkable feat. Traditional sitcoms of similar age tend to blow character traits out of proportion, trying to wring every bit of comedy they can from characters that were once subtle. CBS sister comedy "How I Met Your Mother" is a prime example of this in action. And while "The Big Bang Theory" is typically far from subtle, and does on occasion fall back onto the aforementioned wringing, "The Itchy Brain Simulation" proved that it can mine as much humor from inverting its characters as it does in playing them straight. This season hasn't been consistent hits every week, but this recent stretch of episodes has done something right.
"Itchy Brain" starts off with Leonard finding a seven-year-old old movie rental in an old forgotten box. Predicting Sheldon will freak out and obsess over this he asks his roommate to stay calm. Miraculously, he does. Jim Parsons' understated performance from scene one is intriguing and well played, and welcome compared to the more broad stuff he's usually given. Sheldon makes a deal with Leonard. Leonard must wear an old itchy sweater until he pays for the late movie. This will make Dr. Hostadter feel what it's like to be inside Sheldon's brain when he's obsessing over something -- and with that the game is afoot.
What proceeds is a series of trials and tribulations where in Leonard fails consistently at returning and paying off this late video rental. All the while Sheldon stays perfectly calm. As Leonard lives more and more in the sweater, his actions get more and more erratic. The story gives Johnny Galecki a great opportunity to flex his physical comedy chops. Though I don't find Galecki to be the show's strongest comedic performer, he brought the goods tonight. Crazy Leonard worked in juxtaposition to not only his usual muted self, but to Sheldon's character reversal as well. Galecki's performance also reinforces Parsons'. If we take his itching and freak outs as the physical manifestation of what goes on in Sheldon's brain, we can then imagine what it's like for Jim Parsons to inhabit the character every week.
All of this is topped by the final twist late in the episode. Sheldon paid off the late fee years ago and planted the tape for a "teachable moment" at some later date. This long con prank is a funny concept on paper and shades another, less obvious side of Sheldon. His diabolical persona is not something I'd want to cross. Parsons delivers this twist with believability and it all wraps up with one more Amy/Sheldon sex joke. They had to get at least one in.
Over in our B story, we have Raj's second chance at love with Lucy (Kate Micucci) -- or so we think. Penny gets a bit more to do in this episode, which was nice to see. After seeing Raj's "ex" at The Cheesecake Factory, Penny calls the girl out for breaking up with him via email. Seeing Penny stick up for Raj was a bit unexpected and nicely set up his craziness later in the episode. Like Galecki, Kunal Nayyar then gets some room to play big moments, such as his hot and cold yelling at Penny. Though it's not as striking as Galecki's, it brought enough laughs. I would have liked to see more of Micucci in the episode though, as it seems she was only brought back as a plot device. Pairing Lucy and Raj for a longer arc would be an interesting turn for the show to take. Instead we get Raj screwing up a date with another woman, which is silly, but doesn't pay off past the final punchline.
Flipping character traits isn't something a show can do every week, but for this episode it was more than successful. It seemed this episode also relied less on cheap punchlines and more on its conceptual humor, which is always a welcome adjustment. I'm fully expecting the show to go back to Sheldon being irritating and Howard being gross next week, but for tonight at least, we got another memorable installment.
"The Big Bang Theory" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.