When Sheldon and Leonard learned that their childhood idol, Arthur Jeffries—a.k.a. Professor Proton—was in the business of doing private science shows for paying customers, they seized on the chance to hang out with the guy and do some experiments. It was kind of like Bill Nye the Science Guy if Bill Nye the Science Guy was followed by crippling failure and professional ridicule. Professor Proton was played by the legendary and awesome Bob Newhart, who was a welcome addition to an episode that otherwise featured Dumb Blonde Penny being dumber than we've seen in awhile and a rather dull story about Bernadette and Howard babysitting (and then losing) Raj's dog Cinnamon, a hint toward their possible future parenthood.
After a pleasant stretch of solid episodes that seemed to be building on The Big Bang Theory's characters to a further extent than ever before, the last two weeks have been more of a step backward in terms of not relying on oversimplified stories and character traits for lowest-common-denominator laughs. The exception this week was that at it's core, "The Proton Resurgence" featured a rather touching story, and as we've seen in the past, particularly with the excellent "The Closet Reconfiguration," when The Big Bang Theory wants to be something more than a silly sitcom, it can be.
The people you idolize on TV as a child can often influence your life in ways that are greater than you or they ever realize. My 'rents were into the don't-ask-questions-I-don't-feel-like-answering approach to parenting and kind of thought of the TV as a babysitter they didn't have to tip, so the patience and frankness of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was pretty much the greatest thing ever when I was five. The show also gave me this weird aversion to puppets, but to be fair, Lady Elaine is freaky-looking. There are plenty diehard Bill Nye fans, Sesame Street fans, Magic School Bus fans, and all manner of everything that ever aired on Nickelodeon in the '80s and '90s fans. Captain Kangaroo aired for almost thirty years and was/is beloved.
So the fact that Sheldon and Leonard have a children's TV star of their very own to point to and say "Thanks for making your TV show," isn't surprising at all, and of course he would be a science guy. What I was most surprised and touched by was Sheldon Cooper, despite his giddiness over having Professor Proton performing in his living room and his usual obliviousness to the emotional responses of others, eventually understood Jeffries' frustration at what he perceived to be a failed career, maybe even a failed life.
Once the Professor Proton show ended, Jeffires couldn't find work in Hollywood, and he was seen as a joke among serious scientists in spite of his very real PhD from Cornell, so he ended up on the birthday party circuit, building potato clocks and sucking eggs into Erlenmeyer flasks for the amusement of children (and Penny). He thought of himself as a failure and the final straw, that two full-grown weirdos apparently adored him enough that they wanted him to do a show in their living room—where they would no-doubt later keep him tied up in a basement to perform minor feats of science for their amusement for the rest of his life—was enough to push him over the edge and declare himself retired.
Sheldon's admission about Professor Proton's role in his life also revealed an unusually self-perceptive Sheldon. Sheldon credited Jeffries with giving him not only a role model, but a friend of sorts, during a difficult time in his life. He even managed to talk about the struggles he faced growing up in rural Texas as a child prodigy without it coming off as its usual Sheldon ego-tripping. He claimed that without Proton to guide him, he could have ended up anywhere—and so could've all of the young future scientists who tuned into Jeffries' show. Whatever amazing discoveries Sheldon makes are, in a way, Jeffries' discoveries too. That goes for any scientist who can trace his or her career path to watching a science show as a kid.
Professor Proton was so touched that his pacemaker malfunctioned and Sheldon's awesome day got even better when he got to ride in the ambulance with his idol and serenade him with the latest rendition of "Soft Kitty." Unable to perform for a birthday party the following day, Jeffries bestowed his mantle upon Sheldon and asked him to fill in, so I kind of hope he was serious about retiring because there's no way that Sheldon performing for children is going to end in anything but disaster... aaaand now I want that episode to happen.
What did you think of "The Proton Resurgence?"
THE STRAY OBSERVATION ADDENDUM
– One-liner of the night, (actually, this week it's an exchange): "Is he, um, is he dangerous?" "He's a genius." "That doesn't answer my question."
– "You know if you had a stroke, she would eat you, right?"
– Howard gets turned on when Bernadette fakes Raj's accent. Awkward.
– "Kids are like pancakes. The first one is always a throwaway."
– Do we want a Wolowitz-Rostenkowski baby any time soon? Or ever?