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Review: The Small Bang Theory of ‘Young Sheldon’


A portrait of the genius as a young boy: Iain Armitage stars in “Young Sheldon,” based on the “Big Bang Theory” character.

Sonja Flemming/CBS

CBS’s big-swing comedy this fall is “Young Sheldon.” It’s about an alienated child with severe social limitations and the parents either unable or not particularly eager to understand him, or help him navigate the cruel world that is 1989 Texas.

The title character is the “Muppet Babies” version of Jim Parsons’s “Big Bang Theory” character Sheldon Cooper, a brilliant physicist passionate about comic books and generalized geek culture, with limited empathy and a rigid set of routines. In “Young Sheldon,” which premieres Monday before launching in earnest Nov. 2, he’s a 9-year-old boy genius (Iain Armitage, of “Big Little Lies”), now attending his local public high school thanks to his unusual academic capabilities. Mr. Armitage perfectly recreates Mr. Parsons’s perky insouciance, but that quality is sad somehow on a child. On his first day, he merrily insults classmates and teachers for not adhering to the school’s handbook, winning the ire of all those around him, which he does not notice.

His mother, Mary (Zoe Perry), does notice, however. Ms. Perry gives the show’s most invested performance, in a younger version of the role her own mother, Laurie Metcalf, plays on “Big Bang,” and her voice and mannerisms are so like Ms. Metcalf’s that it’s startling, though not unwelcome. Mary loves and worries about her son — less so her other two kids, who get short shrift — while her football-coach husband (Lance Barber) needs a little more coaxing.

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Mr. Parsons provides a narration to the show, putting “Young Sheldon” in larger debt to “The Wonder Years” than to “Big Bang,” and also recalling other period-set, narrated, quirky-family single camera comedies like ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Goldbergs.”

Unlike those shows, though, “Young Sheldon” isn’t funny. (At least in the one episode made available to critics.) Its punch lines — or whatever is sitting where punch lines are supposed to be — only come from Sheldon’s inappropriate responses. He asks his mother, loudly, in church, when he should be “expecting [his] testicles.” He tells a female teacher that she has “a bit of a mustache.”

Is a child saying the word “brassiere” the same thing as a joke? No. Literalness and a lack of interest in social norms are not enough to sustain a series. This is something “The Big Bang Theory” itself eventually took to heart, adding in characters like Amy (Mayim Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) to create a more pleasant variety of perspectives and allow for moments of camaraderie, not just mutual frustration. These lines don’t illuminate character — we have his voice-over for that, and also they speak to the exact same facet of his character, over and over. The challenge the show faces is that Sheldon is known for his inflexibility, but the show itself needs to move around a bit more.

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