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Young Sheldon isn’t The Big Bang Theory with a little kid

It’s more of a Wonder Years riff — that’s only fitfully successful.

Young Sheldon
Young Sheldon is coming for your model trains.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

By now, the ubiquitous advertising — a young boy in a bow tie — has surely made you aware of the arrival of Young Sheldon, a prequel to The Big Bang Theory debuting this season on CBS.

If you’ve seen the face of actor Iain Armitage gazing pompously at you from the side of a bus, you’d be forgiven for assuming you know exactly what this show is: Young Sheldon (the little boy version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory) will get one over on his family and friends in 1980s Texas, while the studio audience cheers his every witticism. Such an assumption would fit with the conventional wisdom around Young Sheldon’s parent show, which is often derided as one of TV’s worst. (It’s not — as NPR’s Linda Holmes ably points out here — but The Big Bang Theory’s extreme popularity makes a backlash to it inevitable.)

However, in reality, Young Sheldon is something slightly stranger than that. It’s more or less an attempt to reboot The Wonder Years with the protagonist of an already popular sitcom reminiscing about his younger self. (Yes, Old Sheldon portrayer Jim Parsons is on hand to offer voiceover.) As such, it has a softer, more nostalgic, more film-like style, one that would likely result in tonal whiplash behind the more populist Big Bang Theory if the two didn’t feature literally the same main character.

Like most new comedies this fall, Young Sheldon isn’t yet very good at conveying what it’s trying to do. But what it’s trying to do is more interesting — and potentially more artistically exciting — than whatever first impressions you might have of the show. The series is at once better and worse than what you’d expect. So here’s what Young Sheldon is, and what it isn’t, in handy bullet point form.

What Young Sheldon is:

Young Sheldon
Young Sheldon’s mom, played by Zoe Perry, is one of the best reasons to watch.
  • A sweetly nostalgic trip back to the late 1980s: Above all else, Young Sheldon would like to leave you with a feeling of warm nostalgia, not just for the decade but for the family sitcoms of same. The characters have moments when they learn to be nicer to each other. The parents reveal to their kids all the ways they’ve given up on certain dreams to let their kids thrive. Sheldon slowly comes to realize how much everyone in his family is making sacrifices for him because of his extraordinary intellect. The gags about ’80s culture are here, but they’re secondary to the nostalgia.
  • A show about being the parent of a gifted child: If there’s an element of Young Sheldon that could eventually make this one a must-watch and that’s evident in the show’s very shaky pilot, it’s the relationship between Sheldon and his parents Mary (Zoe Perry) and George (Lance Barber). (Perry is the daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who plays Sheldon’s mother in guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory.) The best elements of Young Sheldon’s pilot involve these two, far more than they do Sheldon or his older brother and twin sister. Where The Big Bang Theory can use Mary as the butt of its jokes, Young Sheldon more or less makes her the point-of-view character — a woman with strong faith who doesn’t entirely understand her child. When the show centers on her, it’s at its best, and I suspect the writers will figure this out quickly.
  • A minor tragedy: As my friend (and Vox contributor) Sara Ghaleb pointed out to me, everything we know about Sheldon’s childhood from The Big Bang Theory suggests it was awful. His relationship with his mother is strained. We rarely, if ever, hear about his other family members, with his MeeMaw (to be played by Annie Potts on Young Sheldon) presented as a ghoul who’s mostly spoken of, and almost never seen. Thus, we know that this Sheldon must become that Sheldon at some point, and that he will come to see his family not as a benefit but a burden. I don’t really expect Young Sheldon to lean into its fundamentally tragic nature, but if it did ... that could be really fascinating.

What Young Sheldon isn’t:

Young Sheldon
Young Sheldon and the Sheldons.
  • A multi-camera sitcom: The “multi-camera sitcom” is a show filmed in front of a live studio audience, staged almost like live theater (though captured by cameras). If you want to know much, much more about it, you can read my lengthy defense of the form here. But Young Sheldon is a single-camera sitcom, which means it’s filmed far more like a movie than a play, with the actors performing in a less broadly theatrical style and no audience laughter punctuating punchlines. And where many single-camera shows use this style to cram in more jokes, Young Sheldon is a throwback to shows like The Wonder Years, which limited its number of jokes in hopes of maintaining a bittersweet tone.
  • A particularly good comedy just yet: In particular, Young Sheldon looks a little cheap, relative to the other, glossier single-camera comedies in its rough weight class. (Compare it to the similarly ’80s-set The Goldbergs, which has a much more polished sheen.) This is a frequent problem with CBS’s stabs at the single-camera format; they often end up over-lit and shot from camera angles similar to multi-camera shows, which only adds to the feeling of flatness and artificiality when it comes to the sets and costumes. (The one CBS single-cam to escape this fate has been Life in Pieces.) If Young Sheldon’s jokes were funnier, this would be more forgivable, but since they’re not, it often feels like you’re watching an episode of One Life to Live that’s trying to be funny.
  • A blatant cash grab: I don’t really expect Young Sheldon to be a hit — once viewers realize that it’s not The Big Bang Theory starring a little kid, I think they might be a little perplexed — but it’s less of a blatant cash grab than it seems. The show really does make an attempt to deal with parenting and family issues, and somewhere inside of it beats the heart of a comedic tragedy. Whether it will get to tease out those elements, or whether it will become a broader, crasser version of itself, remains to be seen. (Oh, who am I kidding — it’ll be the latter.) But for now, Young Sheldon exists as the rare spinoff that wants to say something, even if it’s not quite clear what that is yet.

Young Sheldon airs Mondays at 8:30 pm Eastern on CBS, right after The Big Bang Theory. It will eventually move to Thursdays, but let’s not worry about that just yet.

Correction: The original version of this article said we had never seen MeeMaw. We have, but not all that often.

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