The first episode was provided prior to broadcast.
The pilot for CBS’s new spinoff series, Young Sheldon opens with a shot of a train set accompanied by a voiceover from, uh, old Sheldon (Jim Parsons) explaining how he would have been a ticket taker if he couldn’t have been a physicist. What this means, except as a throwback to the original TV show, I am at pains to parse out. Young Sheldon spends the opening of the show playing with his trains, but they’re never referenced again, nor do they form any thematic basis for the rest of the pilot.
It’s a weird introduction to a show intended to cover the East Texas upbringing of The Big Bang Theory’s most obnoxious lead, and it only gets weirder from there, as Sheldon has dinner with his family and introduces them, in voiceover, one after the other. This is supposed to set the stage for a show that evades too much kinship with its mother series and tries to pull a sort of spinoff version of Malcolm in the Middle, just without the heart. Or the humor.
Young Sheldon is played by Iain Armitage, a sweet enough boy who does indeed manage to capture the combination of social naivete and intellectual superiority of his elder self. Sheldon’s intellectual confidence is actually more charming in a nine-year-old boy than in an adult man, and the young lead acquits himself well. The same goes for Zoe Perry, given the unenviable role of stepping into Laurie Metcalf’s shoes as Sheldon’s mother, Mary Cooper (not a big step, though: Perry is Metcalf’s daughter). In the pilot, much is made of Sheldon’s reliance on his mother, and the intensity with which she protects her gifted but socially inept son. The most emotional moments come from the interaction between Mary and Sheldon, but those are few, often undercut by the sheer banality of the script.
There’s something aggressively unfunny about Young Sheldon, as though the producers and writers understood the concept of a joke without bothering to actually learn what makes one funny. There are no humorous jokes in this show. There aren’t even any mildly amusing ones. Young Sheldon can’t really be offensive because there’s no substance with which to offend – though it does try to make light of Sheldon’s evident social anxiety and possible autism. Somehow it’s just not entertaining to watch a little boy have a nervous collapse when dealing with sensory overload, having a live chicken shoved into his face, or trying to navigate a hostile high school environment.
At the very least, the show will make you feel for Sheldon Cooper a lot more than The Big Bang Theory does; the kid needs more support than he’s getting. There are moments of heart – including one very sweet scene nearing the end of the episode – but the rest of the show is so light on the laughs and on the drama that it’s difficult to figure out what, exactly, this is supposed to be. If a sitcom, it needs jokes. If a dramedy, it needs emotion. If a TV show, it needs entertainment value.
Young Sheldon’s problems should be put at the door of a dull, incompetent script that relies more on character types than actual characters. The pilot covers the nine-year-old Sheldon’s first day of high school, but the wildest plots twists we get are his elder brother George (Montana Jordan) being angry that his younger sibling is there and a subplot involving Sheldon lecturing everyone on the school’s dress code.
Again: it would be possible to mine some comedy gold from this, but the show remains stolidly, predictably superficial, the jokes (Sheldon questions a teacher’s credentials! Sheldon’s father doesn’t understand him! Sheldon is a germophobe!) immensely boring. Sheldon’s alienation in his home life might be cause for pathos as well as humor – from his twin sister Missy (Raegan Revord) wanting to watch cartoons instead of educational shows, to his father George Sr. (Lance Barber) giving a rather questionable lesson about morality. But there’s simply nothing there to latch on to emotionally, much less to actually laugh at.
I expected to dislike Young Sheldon, but can only find mild discomfort with it. It’s not so much a show to hate – it’s actually less objectionable than some of the more recent seasons of The Big Bang Theory – than a show that just doesn’t evoke any emotions whatsoever. The cast seem game, but they’re given nothing to do, and the character, as popular as he might have been once upon a time, isn’t one to build a whole show around. Young Sheldon is the Saltine cracker of television: bland, inoffensive, and instantly forgettable.
Inoffensive and unfunny, Young Sheldon is unlikely to have viewers shouting "Bazinga!" any time soon.