Thursday, September 21, 2017

TV REVIEW: CBS' 'Young Sheldon'

CBS will air a sneak preview of its new original comedy series Young Sheldon on Monday, September 25 at 8:30/7:30c. following the season premiere of The Big Bang Theory. The comedy stars Iain Armitage, Zoe Perry, Lance Barber, Raegan Revord, Montana Jordan and Annie Potts.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its premiere episode.

Whenever a show breaks out in a big way, there is immediate talk of a spinoff. That's especially true in this era of Peak TV where all of the networks are fighting for content and to stand out amongst all of the competition. A familiar title can be very encouraging or come with a built-in audience. CBS' The Big Bang Theory has been one of the biggest comedies of the past decade. It's a little surprising that it has taken CBS this long to put forth a spinoff. And yet, the decision to make Young Sheldon seems a little questionable. It doesn't really resemble The Big Bang Theory at all. It's a single-camera comedy instead of a multi-camera sitcom. It's a period comedy set in 1989. And it has narration from Jim Parsons reflecting back on how he grew up. All of these go against the natural rules of spinoffs. Most of the time it's a familiarity in the format that allows a new series with a connection to a successful one to break out on its own. It allows that dynamic to form that creates an easy way in for the audience. The worlds resemble each other so it makes sense that they are connected. But Young Sheldon is completely different from The Big Bang Theory. The comedic beats are different. The humor is different. The styling is different. That's not saying it won't be a success in the end. It's just very strange that CBS thought this would be the best way to recapture the audience from The Big Bang Theory.

Of course, I should first note that I have never been a regular viewing of The Big Bang Theory. I've seen a number of episodes. I have a basic understanding of what's going on in that world. With the amount of times it's playing in syndication, it would be hard to be completely oblivious to it. It's easy to understand why and how Jim Parsons' Sheldon Cooper is the breakout character of that show. He's a very abrasive intellectual who sees the world a certain way and needs to be taught social niceties from his friends. He's the character who can always reliably get a laugh from a live studio audience because it's a broad character. It's understandable why CBS would want to center the spinoff around the childhood years of Sheldon Cooper. He's the most fascinating character who could have this entertaining story about another portion of his life. The original show has featured a number of details about Sheldon's upbringing to have some sense of what this show would include. Laurie Metcalf has shown up numerous times playing his overly religious mother - and gotten several Emmy nominations out of it. Sheldon is basically estranged from the rest of his family. He always felt out-of-place in his Eastern Texas hometown where he went to high school at age 9 and college at 11. All of these details are intriguing backstory to have while also seemingly setting up a shelf life for this show. It may be more difficult for it to have as long a run on CBS as The Big Bang Theory has been fortunate enough to have.

And yet, Young Sheldon has a significantly better pilot than The Big Bang Theory did. When you look back at those early episodes of The Big Bang Theory, they were awful and not all that indicative of what the series would eventually become. It was able to figure itself out over time. Young Sheldon arrives more fully formed. Of course, it has more of ABC family comedy sensibility than a CBS comedy one. That's strange and a little disorienting. CBS has been trying to copy the ABC comedy brand for a couple of years now. CBS has always been most successful when it comes to multi-camera sitcoms. Sure, not all of them are praised by critics but they do appeal to the core CBS audience. This move into single camera comedies has been CBS' attempt to appeal to a younger demographic that respects these types of shows more than the traditional sitcom format. That's fine. The network has just been so blatant in trying to making comedies like ABC but with more complicated twists. Life in Pieces and Me, Myself and I are complicated family comedies with structural hooks in their presentation. Young Sheldon plays things considerably straighter and is much more relaxed and natural as a result. It's probably the best single camera comedy CBS has done so far. The issue really isn't with the format.

Nor is the issue with the casting of this show. Iain Armitage - who played Shailene Woodley's son in Big Little Lies earlier this year - does a nice job mimicking what Parsons does with the character while still have a youthful naivety to him. Furthermore, Zoe Perry does a brilliant job in her approximation of what her real-life mother, Laurie Metcalf, has done with the character of Sheldon's mother. The resemblance and vocal cadence is actually pretty phenomenal to watch. It was such a strong casting decision. Meanwhile, the world is filled out well with the other members of the Cooper family - Lance Barber as Sheldon's father, Montana Jordan as Sheldon's older brother and Raegan Revord as Sheldon's twin sister. They are all frustrated by having this genius in the family who is always condescending about their behavior. The story shows the difficulties that they all have in adjusting to Sheldon beginning high school at a young age. But it's a more charming main story in the first episode than one riddled with effective laughs. It's all building to a heartwarming family moment where they all are able to come together once more.

And yet, there are just certain things that this character can get away with in adult form that's more complicated and off-putting as a child. Yes, this is probably what Sheldon was like at this age. But it also seems like revisionist history as well. The whole point of The Big Bang Theory is Sheldon growing as someone who can exist in the real world. He's always going to have his social oddities and blunt responses in any given situation. But he's grown a ton eleven years since he was first introduced. As such, the Sheldon of this show seems destined to not grow and learn a lot about how the world actually works. If he does, he seems doomed not to remember it moving forward. That's a problem because television shows are fundamentally about growth and how people change over time. It would almost seem to be a smarter idea to spend more time with Sheldon's family members and less on him. The scenes that don't feature Sheldon at all in the premiere are quite entertaining and different to watch. They are having these ongoing struggles that he doesn't even know about. They will be the more entertaining characters in the long run. But the show seems destined to always be centered around Sheldon Cooper because the show's called Young Sheldon and he's the character with a connection to The Big Bang Theory.