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The Muppet Babies, the animated series that has become generational shorthand for taking beloved characters and arbitrarily aging them down for cutesy reasons, was not a prequel. It existed outside of the continuity of The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show and just placed Kermit, Piggy, Animal and the gang in a youthful context because it was adorable; it never claimed that the events taking place in the nursery were going to shape the adult versions of the characters. For that reason, The Muppet Babies is often mocked for its lowest-common-denominator brand opportunism.
I mention Muppet Babies because CBS’ new comedy Young Sheldon is, indeed, a prequel to the long-running smash The Big Bang Theory. In being a prequel it has a serious and possibly show-crippling protagonist problem, when what it probably wants to be is a Muppet Babies version of The Big Bang Theory in which Young Sheldon, Young Leonard, Young Raj, Young Howard, Young Penny and the gang perform elaborate physic and engineering experiments in some isolated nursery and nobody has to pretend their interactions are formative.
Air date: Sep 25, 2017
Viewers knowing Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is the best thing Young Sheldon has going for it, but viewers knowing where Sheldon Cooper was at the beginning of The Big Bang Theory is the biggest problem Young Sheldon has.
Set in 1989 in East Texas, Young Sheldon introduces us to 9-year-old Sheldon Cooper, the character played in multiple-Emmy-winning fashion by Jim Parsons and in bow-tie-wearing diminutive fashion by Iain Armitage here. This Sheldon is on the verge of being skipped into high school, much to the chagrin of older brother George (Montana Jordan) and to the wry amusement of twin sister Missy (Raegan Revord). Sheldon’s father (Lance Barber) is unable to deal with him and his mother (Zoe Perry) is holding the family together with love and faith, while always aware that her precocious son is meant for bigger things.
Parsons provides series continuity with narration and a reminder that the “happy ending” coming out of Young Sheldon is just that we know that Sheldon eventually escapes. We know that nearly 30 years later, Sheldon is brilliant and successful. We also know that although he sees his mother (Laurie Metcalf on Big Bang Theory) with some regularity, he never sees his brother, rarely sees his sister and speaks of his Texas upbringing with consistent contempt. This is not an upbringing that has ever been presented as anything other than an experience that Sheldon fled at the first opportunity.
The choice to imagine Sheldon’s life before the multi-cam The Big Bang Theory as essentially an ABC single camera comedy is an odd one. Written by Chuck Lorre & Steve Molaro, who know way more about what makes Sheldon Cooper tick than I do but are ignoring a lot of inconvenient truths about the character, Young Sheldon is trying to be one of the ABC shows in which they pepper the audience with character- and period-driven jokes for 20 minutes and then spend the last two minutes on heartfelt lessons and warm fuzzies.
In order for those lessons to sink in, though, you have to ignore that the Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory has seemingly had to learn every social nicety and piece of interpersonal interaction from scratch. The Big Bang Theory has spent 10 years manipulating us with the heartfelt moments Leonard and Penny and Amy generated from helping Sheldon open up and then backtracks 30 years and has Sheldon learning the same lessons in 1989.
Context is important for Sheldon to be tolerable. When theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper insults his Big Bang Theory friends as stupid and beneath him, we how that they’re all highly trained, exceptional professionals who in all other circumstances would be the brilliant ones. Go back and watch the early episodes of The Big Bang Theory. It was very, very bad. Part of why it was bad is because it took nearly a season for the writers to figure out how to have Penny maintain her integrity while being the only person on the show who couldn’t respond to Sheldon’s intellectual bullying with an advanced degree of her own.
We’ll see how long it takes Young Sheldon to work out how to handle Sheldon’s rampant condescension in a world in which he feels superior to everybody and … he is. The only things this world has to teach Sheldon are the things that, as I’ve already said, The Big Bang Theory suggested he hadn’t learned yet 20+ years later.
I think the show figures it can get away with Sheldon being a horrible little brat because Armitage is a cute kid doing a reasonable approximation of a Jim Parsons impression. He’s an elitist, a narc, an oblivious name-caller and has no real filter, and because neither the show nor its main character have much empathy for their environs, I experienced limitations to the power of Armitage’s cuteness. You may not.
Lorre and Molaro’s goal is to have you see the seeds of future Sheldon without just writing Big Bang Theory Sheldon dialogue and so you’re supposed to hear Young Sheldon’s obsession with his high school’s code of conduct and see how that will later inform his rigid adherence to roommate agreements and whatnot. This all ignores that Leonard and company have resources to defend themselves against Sheldon’s onslaught that nobody in Young Sheldon has.
Finding the characters in Young Sheldon who can properly play off of the main character will be its most challenging task, one that initially has only limited success. The pilot takes Sheldon to school, but other than a brief scene with a music teacher, his superiority looks to be justified. Ideally, I’d have wanted the pilot to introduce at least one classmate and one teacher who viewers are supposed to think might be worth a couple years of his time. That’s not the way the pilot goes.
The pilot can’t find anything interesting in Sheldon’s relationship with his father (whose fate Big Bang Theory fans already know) and brother.
That’s why to me, the entire future potential of the show hinges on the women in his life, as Penny and Amy have been Sheldon’s best foils on The Big Bang Theory. Perry isn’t doing an impression of her mother playing a character. She’s just stepping into the younger version of a character in a way in which the similarities are uncanny. An impression wouldn’t have the heart that Perry brings to the role, as a woman who is completely outmatched by her nine-year-old, yet who uses every resource at her disposal — love and religion, mostly — to try to be an asset for as long as she can. The more Young Sheldon is the story of a mother trying to raise a genius while still supporting the rest of her brood, the better it’s going to be.
I think Young Sheldon will also be a better show the more it leans on Sheldon’s sister, Missy. She’s a more interesting character to me than Sheldon because as written, and as Revord is playing her, Missy’s probably also exceptionally smart — but she’s never going to get recognized because of the extent of her brother’s prodigy.
Basically, the brilliant brat is amusing, but in The Big Bang Theory, what’s more amusing is the people who choose to be with him; in Young Sheldon what’s more amusing is the people who don’t have the choice but have to be with him. The pilot for Young Sheldon isn’t there yet. It’s too hung up on a main character we know isn’t going to and can’t change for the better. Lorre and the whole Big Bang Theory team did a good job of figuring out how that show had to evolve. This one needs a conceptual adjustment as well.
Cast: Iain Armitage, Zoe Perry, Lance Barber, Raegan Revord, Montana Jordan
Creators: Chuck Lorre & Steve Molaro
Special premiere on Monday, September 25 at 8 p.m. PT/ET on CBS. Airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT starting November 2.
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