Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Big Bang Theory

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H, to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re delving into the world of The Big Bang Theory, CBS’s runaway hit about four nerdy scientists — Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj — bumbling their way through social interactions of all sorts.

Although the show covers all sorts of activities often deemed “nerdy” — roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, comic books, cosplay, conventions, obsessive fandom, etc. — they rarely play puzzles. Usually, the closest they get are board games and card games, whether real ones like 3-D chess or fictional ones like Mystic Warlords of Ka’a.

But in episode 3 of season 7, The Scavenger Vortex, the boys and their girlfriends embarked on one of my favorite puzzly pursuits: the scavenger hunt.

Here, hunt organizer Raj lays down the rules with plenty of style:

The teams end up being the odd couples of Leonard and Bernadette (Howard’s girlfriend), Sheldon and Penny (Leonard’s girlfriend), and Howard and Amy (Sheldon’s girlfriend), allowing some new pairings for the writers to have fun with.

For instance, we’re treated to this exchange between Howard and Amy, where Amy references her unpopularity growing up:

Howard Wolowitz: Wow, you’re really good at puzzles.
Amy Farrah Fowler: I did them all the time as a kid. As my mom used to say: when you’re doing a puzzle, it’s like having a thousand friends. She was full of fun lies like that.

The game starts with a jigsaw puzzle, which quickly reveals the location of the next clue: the comic book store. (Although Sheldon forces Penny to wait while he completes the entire puzzle.)

When the competitors arrive at the comic book store, a cardboard cutout of the Riddler holds their next clue.

Riddle me this:
Arrah, Arrah, and gather ’round,
this hero is legion-bound,
He multiplies N by the number of He,
and in this room the thing you’ll see.

Sheldon instantly solves the riddle, followed by Howard and Amy, then finally by Bernadette and Leonard, highlighting how well the three teams are working together. (Either Sheldon or Penny takes the lead, depending on the task, while Howard and Amy collaborate well, and overcompetitive Bernadette basically yells at Leonard the entire time.)

Arriving at the geology lab at the university, Penny and Sheldon reveal the next puzzle: To continue on your quest, leave no stone unturned.

While they turn over various rock samples in the lab, Sheldon explains how he solved the riddle.

Arrah pointed to Jan Arrah, a member of the DC Comics superhero team The Legion of Super-Heroes, who goes by the name Element Lad. This pointed Sheldon to the Periodic Table of Elements, where he multiplied the atomic number of N, Nitrogen (7) by the atomic number of He, Helium (2), getting 14, the atomic number of Silica, which pointed him to either the geology lab or the chemistry lab.

And the final line of the riddle — “and in this room, the thing you’ll see” — pointed toward the Marvel superhero The Thing, who is made entirely of rock.

As Sheldon is showing off his impressive riddle-cracking skills, underdog Penny actually solves the current puzzle, realizing that “no stone unturned” didn’t mean the samples in the lab. It meant the Rolling Stones poster hung on the door, which she lifts to reveal map coordinates.

This sends them to a bowling alley, and then to the disused elevator shaft in Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building. A montage mentions further puzzles at the planetarium and the tar pits (and plans to attend a Neil Diamond concert for new chums Howard and Amy), before ending up in the laundry room at Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building.

Three bags of laundry await the players, and they quickly realize each bag contains only pants, except for a single shirt of Sheldon’s. A shirt with a spot on it.

Fans of the show, of course, know where their final destination — and the coin — awaits them. But when they tear apart the couch, there’s no coin.

In the end, we discover the final clue was a red herring, and Raj had slipped gold coins into everyone’s pockets earlier in the day. (Which is some pretty impressive sleight-of-hand, I must say.)

And although Raj’s big lesson — it’s getting together and playing that’s important, not the prize at the end — is lost on his fellow castmates, it really does encapsulate the best in group puzzling and gaming… the experience.

Maybe The Big Bang Theory gets puzzles after all.

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