What would The Big Bang Theory be like without a laugh track? CBS aimed to find out with the premiere of Young Sheldon last week. Going back to explore Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s past and upbringing in Texas, the show promises to visit vital turning points that made Sheldon the man he is today. Or maybe it’s just an excuse to keep milking the success of the Big Bang like so many other channels and companies like to do.
Which is it? I’m going to make a case for option A, but ultimately you get to decide.
Anyone who has seen even a clip of The Big Bang Theory shouldn’t be surprised to learn that nine year old Sheldon Cooper is a special child. Beyond being an obvious genius, Dr. Cooper in miniature form still retains the “against the grain” worldview that’s colored by the innocence of youth.
This episode, as the premiere, naturally spent a lot of time introducing us to the important players in Sheldon’s life, some of whom we are quite familiar with from Big Bang. His father, George Sr. (Lance Barber), is a high school athletics coach who embodies the typical “man of the household” persona most 80’s nuclear families had. His mother, Mary, obviously wears the real pants in the family and holds it together with a dose of traditional Christian values. Siblings George Jr. and Missy are also there to offer some diversity in personalities and youthful drama, especially as Sheldon is entering high school with his teenage older brother.
The episode is centered around Sheldon making this transition. His expectations are high, seeing high school as a natural place for advanced learning compared to the meager elementary education he’s previously endured. Both of his parents foresee complications since the harsh reality of high school is ready to come knocking. Mary wants to protect her son while offering him a quality education since private school is out of the question on a gym teacher’s salary. Both of the Georges are perhaps most resistant to the idea, while Missy is just happy to get Sheldon out of her grade.
Finally, high school starts and reality sets in. On his first day, Sheldon is surprised to learn other students unabashedly live in defiance of the school rule book he has memorized to the letter. Naturally, he starts to right the wrongs by policing violators and teachers alike. Eventually, everyone has an issue and almost gives up on this experiment in the principal’s office. Mary keeps everything on track by essentially forcing the teachers to suck it up.
George Jr., meanwhile, continues to deal with the struggles of having his younger, but smarter, brother in the same school. Trying to fit in, it’s obvious his younger brother isn’t going to be helping his street cred. The pressure eventually releases during football tryouts where George nearly pommels another kid before storming off into the locker room.
Things reach a semi-touching moment when George Sr. tries to deal with the chaos around him. He puts on the coaching hat to talk George Jr. back onto the field. Later on, he tries to parent Sheldon out of his meddling ways by sharing the harsh truth of his own experiences: when you stand up for what is right, you get beat down. It’s probably not the most inspirational lesson to share with a nine year old, but it’s the thought that counts… I guess.
Most importantly, the story prompts Sheldon to reveal a subtle side of himself that Dr. Sheldon often lacks: empathy. After asking his dad if getting fired made him sad, Sheldon sheds one of the protective gloves he wears at dinner and holds his dad’s hand for the first time during a prayer. The other glove stays on, because obviously no one wants to touch a hormonal teenager, save for said hormonal teenager.
Does It All Work?
First off, let’s be clear: this isn’t Big Bang Theory 2.0. Young Sheldon is making an active attempt to distinguish itself as a separate show, almost to the point where if you erased Big Bang, this show would still stand. While people like me who literally have whole seasons of Big Bang to catch up on may appreciate this, straying so far from what has made the series popular may be a giant minus for true fans.
Also, some of the comedic writing needs work. It’s inevitable that any new show will have some tweaks here and there, but if Young Sheldon is truly going to establish its own lane, it should abandon the laugh-track-infused zingers that make The Big Bang Theory a popular, yet typical, sitcom. Thankfully, it seems like the show is secluding most of this type of humor to Jim Parson’s commentary and reflection.
The true potential of this show is in the inevitable humor that comes from the perspective of a nine year old genius and those around him who are affected. This show clearly is diving into the emotional well that extends beyond pure comedy. For example, having Sheldon try to enforce the rules that are clearly there for everyone’s benefit (in his mind) is humorous while also indicative of the abrasive realities this young kid is going to experience.
For this show to really stand out, the humor will have to be more complex and deep. The potential is there, but the writing must follow suit. In other words, the writers of Young Sheldon need to really commit to sticking in this new lane. Avoid the gravitational pull of The Big Bang Theory.
With that said, this show has a lot going for it. First off, much of the primary casting is simply brilliant. Zoe Perry, who plays Mary is almost a younger, carbon copy of Laurie Metcalf who has played Sheldon’s mom on Big Bang. Her mannerisms, tone, and subtle nonverbal cues almost match the original performance perfectly. Another casting choice I was surprisingly impressed was newcomer Montana Jordan playing George Jr. While the character has all of the makings of a stereotypical jock, George’s emotional outburst in the locker room showed a real depth of turmoil this young teen is going through as he navigates the waters of high school with a genius brother.
Most importantly, this show seems to really understand the core source of humor and drama: young Sheldon himself. Iain Armitage is a standout young performer who sells the innocence of a child genius who thinks the world should work like he thinks it should. Even the small signs of imperfection, such as Sheldon needing his comforting bow tie on the first day of school, reveal more about the character’s struggles than The Big Bang Theory has in recent years. It will be interesting to see how this develops as the real world starts to smack back.
That is the depth this show has the potential to offer. Much like other successful shows like Speechless that explore the realities of a unique experience, Young Sheldon may actually shed light on the ups and downs of having a child genius in Texas. The parent’s struggles with providing the best of all their children are real. The sibling’s struggles to make their own way in the shadow of future Dr. Sheldon Cooper are real.
If the show survives the usual ratings gauntlet, this could be a real opportunity to see how a super smart, super innocent young kid learns the difference between his ideal world and the reality he has to live in before he can afford the rent of modern day California.