There’s an old flame burning for Penny as week 11 opens and that flame is none other than Zack—Mr. Excitation himself.
On the one hand, considering Zack’s appearance in last week’s The Alien Parasite Hypothesis (he was the “alien” who drove Amy Farrah Fowler’s endocrine system into a gluteus-maximus-grabbing frenzy), his reappearance this week isn’t terribly surprising.
On the other hand, in last season’s finale—when Zack first appeared—Penny described him as the type of guy Leonard had spoiled for her because he’s “so stupid.” That makes Zack’s reemergence as Penny’s love interest more than a little surprising.
Our four favorite ‘so-smart-they’re-dumb’ geeks welcome Zack much the same way they did last season. This time, though, they intensify their ridicule to the point where even poor, oblivious Zack finally realizes they’re disparaging him and rushes out, incensed.
Penny is deeply offended by their behaviour. “You know,” she admonishes as the opening sequence concludes, “for a group of guys who claim they spent most of their lives being bullied, you can be real jerks. Shame on all of you.”
With a little cajoling, Leonard persuades Sheldon, Howard and Raj into accompanying him to Penny’s apartment to apologize. How? Zack might decide to punch him and they wouldn’t want to miss that, would they?
Fortunately for Leonard, no punches are thrown. To the contrary, after accepting a Milk Dud peace offering from Sheldon—“Milk Duds are the most apologetic of the boxed candies”—Zack even accompanies them on an outing to the neighborhood comic book store. Once there, store owner Stuart asks if they’re attending his annual New Year’s Eve costume party.
Not only are they attending, but Sheldon perceives an opportunity to finally win the annual best-group-costume prize. All they need do is replace Leonard as Superman in their annual Justice League ensemble—who is, according to Sheldon, the group’s Achilles heel. Zack, Sheldon claims, with his real muscles and impressive stature, will make an award-clinching Superman.
“You can’t replace me with Zack,” Leonard protests.
“Why not?” Sheldon asks. “Penny did it.”
Howard can’t resist piling on. “Yea, she seems happier; why wouldn’t we be?”
Leonard thus goes to the party as Green Lantern; Sheldon as The Flash; Howard as a decidedly undersized Batman; and Raj as the most hilarious Aquaman I’ve ever seen.
Even Penny gets in on the fun, dressing for the party as a cleavage-bearing Wonder Woman. She’s non-too-enthused about attending, though, and, at one point, becomes incensed at Zack’s insensitivity, rushing out and refusing to go. After Zack and Sheldon unsuccessfully try talking her into changing her mind, Leonard gives it a try.
The scene wherein Leonard persuades Penny to join the group is unexpectedly poignant and emotionally nuanced—not attributes I’ve come to expect from Bang. The exchange manages, at the same time, to be funny, too.
Penny, it turns out, is only seeing Zack again is to avoid being alone on New Year’s Eve; Zack isn’t, in truth, her boyfriend—at least, not as far as she’s concerned; who knows how Zack sees it.
In the conversation’s most revealing moment, however, Penny confesses: “If Zack and I had just gone to a regular club or a party, it would’ve been fine; but this—with the costumes and you…”
“What about me?” Leonard asks, obviously curious, but unassuming and caught off-guard.
The look Penny gives him is loaded and wounded, overflowing with sudden, unresolved emotion. “Nothing,” she says, “Let’s go to the party.”
On the upside, Penny, Leonard and their geeky cadre win the best group costume prize. On the downside, Leonard doesn’t win Penny back—not this week—and the New Year’s kiss goes to Zack as a dejected Leonard looks on. Penny’s heart’s not in it, though; based on her expression, hurting Leonard may, in fact, be equally painful for her.
In my review of last season’s finale, I wrote that I preferred for Penny and Leonard to reconcile, as their ongoing relationship angst gives the show too much of a soap opera vibe. And while that assessment might still prove true as season 4 continues, it’s not so here.
Suddenly—and quite unexpectedly—I find myself emotionally invested in this romantic drama. It seems only a matter of time before the two reunite, but if Bang’s writers can keep the relationship strife this nuanced and amusing, it’ll be a pleasure watching things play out.
Actors Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki—former real-life sweethearts—deserve a great deal of credit, too. Their chemistry; the looks they exchange; the dramatic tone they strike amid a bevy of comic-book infused one-liners—all are absolutely pitch perfect.
If The Justice League Recombination isn’t season 4’s best episode to date, it’s certainly near the top. It’s a rapid-fire affair whose laughs—even amidst romantic angst—come fast and almost nonstop. It’s one of those Bang episodes I can immediately watch a second time and laugh almost as hard during the encore. Excellent, excellent stuff.