Review: ‘Young Sheldon’ is a surprisingly sweet ‘Big Bang Theory’ spin-off
Iain Armitage, 9, tells USA TODAY's Bill Keveney what it's like to play the lead character in 'Young Sheldon,' and Zoe Perry and Lance Barber, who play his parents, talk about the young actor's capabilities.
Young Sheldon is not The Big Bang Theory.
That’s the first takeaway from the premiere episode of the new CBS sitcom (Monday 8:30 ET/PT, moving to Thursdays 8:30 ET/PT Nov. 2, *** out of four). Created by Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro, the family comedy jumps back to 1989 as it follows a pre-pubescent Sheldon Cooper (Iain Armitage), a child prodigy in a small Texas town attending high school at age nine.
Young Sheldon and Big Bang share a history, and a star (Big Bang's Jim Parsons steps in for some Wonder Years-style narration as the modern-day Sheldon), but little else. The spinoff is a single-camera sitcom without a studio audience. It also has a tone that leans far more sentimental and is focused on family, not friendships.
The changes in style and format may be jarring to regular Big Bang viewers, who might be surprised to find Sheldon isn't a pint-size version of TV's top comedy. But Sheldon deserves credit for not forcing the Big Bang model onto a series where it wouldn’t fit. The sitcom has a chance to lure in new viewers, who are put off by Big Bang’s aggressive studio audience laughter or joke style. The end result is a series with fewer “Bazingas” and more heart, which works just fine, at least in the early going.
Young Sheldon gets most of its humor from the juxtaposition of its abrasive child genius and a conservative small town with residents who don't understand or (at times) want to deal with him. The action kicks off with Sheldon starting high school, an attempt by his parents to place him in an environment more suited to him. Of course, the catch is that he doesn’t really belong anywhere, and the show mines comedy from Sheldon’s clashes with teachers and students.
Armitage, who was a standout in HBO's Big Little Lies earlier this year, is a remarkably articulate and engaging young actor. Had the producers not been able to find someone nearly as precocious as Sheldon, the series wouldn’t work.
Armitage manages to be cute but not cloying, and just blunt and annoying enough to see hints of Parsons’ version of the character nearly three decades older. Zoe Perry, as Sheldon’s religious and protective mother, Mary, is also a strong addition to the series. Mary’s character contains various familiar “sitcom mom” aspects, but Perry gives her enough edge and individuality to keep her from becoming a cliché. That Perry is the real-life daughter of the actress who plays Mary on Big Bang (Laurie Metcalf) only adds to her portrayal.
The same cannot be said, however, for the rest of the ensemble. Sheldon’s siblings (Raegan Revord and Montana Jordan) and his father (Lance Barber) are not developed enough in the pilot to feel like more than tropes (mean siblings, a gruff football coach). Hopefully, future episodes will develop them into more complex and affecting characters.
That is really the biggest challenge Young Sheldon now faces. The series is going on hiatus immediately after the premiere, and when it returns in November, it needs to expand beyond its one-joke concept and create stories that are about more than just Sheldon and his intelligence. There’s evidence of that potential in the first episode’s final scene, with a well-timed barb at Radio Shack.
If it can really push itself, Young Sheldon might just be smart enough to work wonders.
From mayors to mutants, your new fall TV and streaming obsessions are right here.