[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Big Bang Theory” series finale, Season 12, Episode 23, “The Change Constant,” and Episode 24, “The Stockholm Syndrome.”]
The series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” was everything the show did well, and a bit of what it did poorly, wrapped into one hourlong package. It didn’t try to do too much or too little. It didn’t buck expectations, shift formats, or try to set a new standard for series finales. It really wasn’t surprising or all that ambitious, but then again, neither was “The Big Bang Theory.” If anything, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady’s goodbye to normcore geek culture went out of its way to avoid changing much of anything, despite spending its first half learning to accept the inevitability of change as a universal constant.
Cynics may say these choices were made to preserve any chance of a revival. In 10 years, when the cast’s second careers don’t go as planned and CBS needs to drum up a hit, maybe they will come back. (Though, it’s quite likely any revival would be part of the WarnerMedia portfolio.) But what “The Big Bang Theory” did best was make time for its characters to just be — to sit and talk and eat and speculate about impossible pop culture pairings or concoct ludicrous big-brained ideas. While not as sharp in its dialogue or performances as the mecca of friendship sitcoms, “Friends,” “Big Bang” treated its ending like one precious, yet not too precious, final hour to spend with the gang. And as other endgames go horrifically off-the-rails, this one felt refreshingly true to itself.
So what happened? Not much! The Season 12 build-up to Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik) winning their Nobel Prize was honored with a sharp cold open that showed what “Big Bang” was capable of when clicking on all cylinders. First, Sheldon falls asleep. Then, Chekhov’s gun arrives in the promise of a slap: Sheldon told his friends if he fell asleep before the Nobel call came, they could slap him. After arguing over who’s earned the right to slap their annoying friend, it appears no one gets to — the phone rings. But it’s not the prize committee, it’s their prankster friend Barry (John Ross Bowie), then their earnest friends Howard (Simon Helberg) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) checking to see if there was any news.
Third time proves the charm, both for comic timing and Amy, who’s then told she and her husband have won. “Can you believe it?” she asks Sheldon, who, of course, takes the question literally and wonders if he’s dreaming. Whack! With gleeful force and great timing, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) slaps his friend, paying off on the promise and sending the group into joyous cheers instead of angry fits — one last comedic contrast before the titles roll.
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All of this plays out beautifully, and it’s pretty much the high point of both episodes. Not only does the scene get the entire main cast involved, but it carries a rat-a-tat momentum that’s impossible not to get swept up in (and this critic did not enter into this episode with any eagerness to be swept away.) The set ups, the beats, the performances all shine, and there are little moments left to cherish afterwards, but nothing as complete; nothing as precise; nothing so perfect.
The A-plot of “The Change Constant” focuses on Sheldon’s struggles to adjust to how his win could change his life. It’s a predictable arc ending with a sweet chat between he and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) at the bar she used to tend — the two reminisce over how far they’ve come, and Sheldon sees the logic in accepting change as inevitable. This kind of adjustment would’ve worked quite well to introduce a drastic time jump into the future filled with many momentous shifts: Maybe the couple used their Nobel prize money to buy a house. Maybe Howard and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) convinced them to invest in a start-up. Maybe Leonard grew a goatee — anything could’ve happened after Sheldon accepted change as a part of life, but instead, “The Big Bang Theory” refused to change at all.
The final half-hour, “The Stockholm Syndrome,” does start with a two-month time jump, but that’s only so the story can include the Nobel Prize ceremony. Aside from Penny’s pregnancy, nothing has changed. (There’s even a joke that Leonard and Sheldon spent the last two months rebuilding a broken map of the perfect human genome.) Here, Sheldon learns to appreciate his friends; to see them as the true prize and value them more than the medal he’s been talking about since childhood. It’s a nice message and comes about a bit too easily — Sheldon has never been told he’s insensitive before? Really? — but it works.
There’s no birth; no cut to 10 years from now to see what everyone is up to; no hint at whether Raj was able to get a real date with Sarah Michelle Geller (the cameo no one saw coming because it tied into nothing.) The final scene shows the group eating together in Leonard and Penny’s apartment as a slow version of the theme song plays over their muted chatter. That’s the end.
Perhaps some fans wanted more. Certainly, Chuck Lorre and the 11 other credited writers — yes, eleven — could’ve spiced things up a bit. But that’s not what “The Big Bang Theory” was. That’s not what made it work for so long. “Big Bang” let the audience sit and connect with its characters. Plot was there, but it didn’t get in the way of that primary focus. So to expect anything different in its waning hours would’ve been disingenuous. The series understood itself, understood its audience, and understood what it needed to give them in order to keep everyone happy. Maybe that’s not thrilling or significant or even great TV. But it is nice. And that’s good enough.
“The Big Bang Theory” Season 12 is available to stream on CBS All Access.