Spoiler alert: This story contains many details from Thursday's series finale of "The Big Bang Theory."
"The Big Bang Theory" didn't end with a bang.
That was never the point of the hit CBS comedy, which ended its 12-season run Thursday with a one-hour finale that featured big, but hardly shocking, news.
After 279 episodes, "Bang" landed its core cast comfortably and appropriately, back in the same place they've always been geographically, but in a better position, by degrees, in terms of emotional maturity. Not that there wasn't some turbulence getting to the final resting spot, but we'll get to that.
The finale, actually two episodes ("The Change Constant" and "The Stockholm Syndrome"), culminates the season-long story of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and his wife, Amy (Mayim Bialik), potentially winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.
But, first, it featured a long look back at some of the people, jokes, quirks and moments of genuine affection that explain the show's popularity over the years, including Sheldon's door-knocking, "Soft Kitty," Mrs. Wolowitz, space travel, multiple marriage proposals and babies.
The phone call
The first episode opens in the middle of the night with Sheldon, Amy, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) drinking coffee and being cranky as they await word on the prize from Stockholm. Sheldon has given Leonard permission to slap him if he falls asleep, and his long-suffering friend and former roommate relishes the potential opportunity.
They get false alarms, including a crank call from rival Kripke (John Ross Bowie), before Amy receives the news: They won!
When Sheldon begins to wonder whether he may actually be dreaming that he’s won the biggest prize in science, Leonard sees his opportunity and delivers a loud slap, easily the best sight gag in the episode.
After the initial celebration, Sheldon and Amy are hit with a wave of media coverage. Neither enjoys it. Sheldon hides in his office to avoid a reporter; Amy is initially happy with the outside interest, but she later frets that she appears frumpy on camera.
Sheldon’s reticence spurs Howard (Simon Helberg) to promote himself and his time as an astronaut, when he tells a reporter that he’s Sheldon’s best friend, even though he isn’t. His wife, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), takes a similar tack regarding Amy.
By now, Sheldon is suffering from be-careful-what-you-wish-for syndrome, as his childhood dream isn’t turning out as he expected. The brilliant physicist, who does not respond well to change, is further aggravated when Amy, with an assist from Raj (Kunal Nayyar), shows off her stylish new hairdo and outfit.
She gets compliments from everyone except her husband. “I liked you better the way you were,” says Sheldon, who has made emotional progress over the seasons but is going into a tailspin.
The elevator works – finally
As Sheldon pouts in the hallway, Leonard confronts him about his rudeness. Suddenly, the door of the apartment elevator, which has been out of order and covered in yellow tape since the show’s premiere in 2007, opens and Penny is standing there.
"Can you believe it? They finally fixed the elevator," she says.
When Sheldon, trying to evade Penny, goes down the stairs to leave, she takes the elevator and surprises him on the ground floor, as the show piles on some good elevator jokes in the limited time that remains.
Penny takes Sheldon to The Cheesecake Factory, where she tries to help him get acclimated to his new status and his wife’s new look. They reflect on how far both have come. It’s a welcome scene for two very different characters, the book-smart snob and the street-smart waitress/actress/pharmaceutical rep.
Back at the apartment, Leonard, feeling his oats after gaining a promotion and finally standing up to his domineering mother, decides to rearrange the apartment, long a no-no even after habitual Sheldon moved away. It ends in disaster, of course, as he moves a DNA model and it crumbles, with hundreds of tiny balls hitting the floor.
Later, Leonard, after reconstructing the double helix with Sheldon's help, says, "This might be the glue talking, but that was a very pleasurable 139½ hours." That number is significant: Divided into half-hours, it equals 279, the number of "Big Bang" episodes.
Secret baby news
Some time after the Nobel Prize announcement, with everyone so focused on the upcoming ceremony in Stockholm, Penny and Leonard are able to keep a lid on their own big news: Penny is pregnant. Apparently, they conceived on the night she went to The Cheesecake Factory with Sheldon.
The couple's disagreement about having children – Leonard for, Penny mostly against – has been another major story line this season. It would have been more interesting if Penny had stuck to her position and decided not to become a mom, but that's not really the kind of issue "Big Bang" would tackle. Pregnancy is the pat solution, because – aw, heck, it's OK to be happy for this sweet couple.
What's more unbelievable is that none of the friends pick up the cues that Penny is pregnant, especially when she has to have her dress let out and later says she won't be drinking the free booze on the flight to Sweden, even though she's a wine-loving gal. It's easy to imagine the guys being oblivious, but the women, especially Bernadette, are smarter than that.
Heading to Stockholm
In the all-for-one ethos of "Big Bang," all the friends are accompanying Sheldon and Amy to the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, with Howard and Bernadette taking a trip without their young children for the first time. If that's not enough cause for concern, they're leaving the kids with Stuart (Kevin Sussman). This won't go smoothly.
First, they have to listen to Amy and Sheldon run through their acceptance speeches. Sheldon's is unusually dismissive and self-absorbed, even for him. By this point, it's clear that the character, who has taken hundreds of baby steps on the march to maturity, is regressing back to where he started on the show.
He gets worse on the flight to Sweden. Instead of congratulating Penny and Leonard when their baby secret spills, Sheldon focuses on the fact she doesn't have a virus and is relieved she won't ruin the ceremony. He's being a real jerk; it just doesn't seem right for this character at this point in his development, although it's not every day you win a Nobel.
Sheldon's behavior upsets Leonard, who wants his friend to be happy for him. Not everyone notices this clash, as Raj believes he's sitting next to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aka Sarah Michelle Gellar. He confirms that belief by going through her purse to find her boarding pass. That's pretty creepy, so it seems he's regressing, too.
Leonard is still miffed when he gets to the hotel, where pregnant Penny develops an immediate craving for pickled herring. Sheldon, forced by Amy, shows up to deliver an apology, but only makes things worse. Leonard decides its time to leave, as do Howard and Bernadette, who are bothered by Sheldon's selfish behavior but also worried about Stuart's incompetent babysitting.
Friendship is tested, but survives
But they can't go. Despite Sheldon's behavior, he's still their friend. Obtuse Sheldon eventually gets it, too. As Amy accepts her Nobel honor, encouraging young women to go into science ("Big Bang" deserves credit for setting an example in that regard), he decides to abandon his self-aggrandizing acceptance speech.
Instead, as if he were pulled back in a slingshot to his most childish ways, he's finally shot forward to his most selfless act of maturity. He gives credit in his speech to his friends, realizing what's ultimately most important in life as he singles out each to thank for their support. (Buffy's there with Raj, too.)
"I apologize if I haven't been the friend you deserve, but I want you to know, in my way, I love you all," he says.
Although Sheldon's backward behavior was difficult to believe, the payoff speech is sweet and touching. For a show that's often made us laugh, this should make many cry.
The only quibble is that it's a bit too Sheldon-centric, even with the acknowledgment of other characters. Fortunately, the show takes care of that in a beautiful final shot: this family of friends enjoying their typical Chinese takeout in the apartment living room. An acoustic, melancholy rendering of the show's famous Barenaked Ladies theme plays them off.
It's a scene viewers have watched hundreds of times, but that's not a problem. This isn't "Lost"; we weren't looking for any game-changing answers in the finale.
Fans have embraced this show because they are comfortable with characters they've gotten to know over 12 seasons and a meal together feels just right. It's a nice closing portrait, knowing they'll always have each other.
And it's a satisfying ending to a very good sitcom finale; not "Newhart"-level best but far from the worst. You can almost imagine, in a meta way, the characters ranking where the "Big Bang" closer stands against its classic comedy predecessors. It's just what they do.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Big Bang Theory' series finale recap: A long trip ends up in a comfy, familiar home