'Young Sheldon' is the fall's best new network sitcom

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Young Sheldon (CBS)

You might think The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper isn’t the most likely TV character to rate a spinoff show. Sheldon has a fussy manner, precise diction, and obtuse social skills: not the sort of creation to prompt mass-audience identification, right? But think about it: You could apply those same characteristics to Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane, and his Cheers spinoff show turned out pretty well. So it is with Young Sheldon. In the new show, a 9-year-old Sheldon is played by Iain Armitage, and there’s an emotional richness to the show, right from the start, that makes you want to see more. (Note: Tonight’s airing of Young Sheldon is a “series preview”; the show won’t officially premiere until November.)

Set in 1989 in East Texas, Young Sheldon brings us into the squabbling house where Sheldon was raised. We knew from Sheldon’s sketched-out backstory on The Big Bang Theory that Jim Parsons’s Sheldon had a trying relationship with his family, and Young Sheldon makes this the focus of the new show. A prissy little twerp with a clip-on bowtie, Armitage’s Sheldon is the odd-boy-out at home, where his mom and dad (Zoe Perry and Lance Barber) and his brother and sister (Montana Jordan and Raegan Revord) look at him as though he were an alien who’d crash-landed on their property. Sheldon doesn’t fit into the rabid-football-fan East Texas culture, much to the chagrin of his athletic-teacher father.

It’s a refreshing novelty to see a major character on a TV show talk enthusiastically about the pleasures of learning and school. The pilot episode takes us to Sheldon’s first day of high school — he’s jumped a few grades due to his advanced intelligence, and while he’s eager to be challenged, he also has some social adjustments to make. The new show, overseen by Big Bang’s Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro, is careful to make Sheldon smart without being too supercilious, and awkward without being foolish. The taunts he endures are just mean enough — not mean verging on cruel, as much of the humor on Lorre’s Two and a Half Men was.

Even better are Sheldon’s scenes at home. Yes, it was clever casting to have Sheldon’s mom played by Perry — the daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who plays Sheldon’s mother on The Big Bang Theory. But Perry immediately establishes her own personality, voice, and approach to this character, and her line-readings get as many laughs as Armitage’s do. Barber, beloved by some of us for his portrayal of the awful TV writer Paulie G on The Comeback, is equally good as Sheldon’s father. It’s difficult to play the grumpy dad in a fresh way, but Barber has found a way to do it.

Because it features a nostalgic voice-over (from Jim Parsons), is set in an earlier era, chronicles a boy’s youth, and is a single-camera, no-studio-audience effort, Young Sheldon has a certain Wonder Years glow to it. The challenge for the show going forward is to keep young Sheldon a believable, likable kid while also emphasizing the eccentric qualities that make him an effective comic creation. From this first episode, it really feels as though that’s not going to be a problem.

Young Sheldon officially premieres Nov. 2 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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