“Young Sheldon” is earnestly trying to do two things at once: function as a mainstream family comedy, and fit into the realm of single-camera half hours, which tend to be a bit more character-driven than most shows on CBS. “Young Sheldon,” which depicts “The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper as a precocious 9-year-old in East Texas, doesn’t quite gel in either arena in its initial outing. But the premise and a few performances are interesting enough to give the show some time to find its way.
Without question it was the right decision to avoid the multi-camera format with this project. The Sheldon that TV audiences have come to know over the course of 10 seasons of “The Big Bang Theory” can be a difficult person (which is partly the hook of both shows). Despite the fine work of Jim Parsons as the adult Sheldon, the physicist — given his genius IQ and his unwillingness to conform to many of the unspoken rules of social interaction — is prickly even when he’s in a good mood. If a very young, condescending and sometimes unkind Sheldon had been forced to unleash quip after quip on a traditional multi-cam, the results would have likely been unbearable.
That said, “Young Sheldon’s” efforts to merge a warm, layered family-oriented half hour with the rhythms of a typical CBS sitcom are only partly successful. There are a number of attempts to humanize young Sheldon, who, in the first episode, begins attending the same high school as his football-playing older brother. A few times, the camera switches to Sheldon’s pint-size point of view, which reveals that everyday situations involving crowds are often frightening to him. Even a stuffed trophy animal in a glass case can make him feel anxious. Iain Armitage does a credible job of displaying the range of Sheldon’s emotions, from cool arrogance to naive obliviousness. But the younger version of the character is still a bit too stiffly written and pompous to be truly winning.
Sheldon’s siblings, who also include a twin sister, are one-dimensional and annoying, not just to Sheldon but likely to some viewers as well. The genius’ parents get more nuanced characterizations, ones that don’t rely as much on the set-up/joke structure that props up other aspects of the show.
It’s a stroke of luck that “Young Sheldon” was able to cast Zoe Perry as Sheldon’s long-suffering, loving mom, Mary. Perry’s mother, Laurie Metcalf, plays Mary on “Big Bang,” and the two actresses imbue the role with similar warmth and toughness. But adding to the ungainly hybrid feel of the show is an intermittent voiceover from Parsons, a “Wonder Years”-style touch that feels a little out of place, even if it helps establish the context in which this mismatched family operates. Mary and Sheldon function as one unit — and their scenes are often the best ones. The other kids seem as though they hail from an extremely conventional sitcom, and Sheldon’s dad (Lance Barber) is stuck somewhere in the middle.
Like an ambitious science experiment, “Young Sheldon” is a work in progress, but if it finds a way to meld the pathos of Sheldon’s existence — he is frequently taunted and misunderstood at school and at home — with gentle but reliably effective humor, CBS might be on to something with this prequel.