There’s a shot in the “Young Sheldon” premiere, directed by “Jungle Book” helmer Jon Favreau, so pitiful it feels pulled from a Todd Haynes film more than a sitcom spinoff. After a family dinner that proves distressing not only for the arguments had but for how ordinary the hostility comes across, the camera pulls back through a narrow doorway, framing the five-some in an inescapable box of childish bickering and unspoken frustrations. They’re trapped, and “Young Sheldon” asks how they’ll ever escape.
Of course, viewers know Sheldon gets out. The series almost immediately reframes his life in “The Big Bang Theory” as a grand success story, but that doesn’t change how this prequel series will be seen. Like a family permanently stuck in a dining room debate, viewers have to live in the moment with Sheldon, and that experience (so far) feels as heartbreaking — and fulfilling — as watching Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman on “Better Call Saul.”
The aforementioned shot bookends a casual pan into the dining room that kicks off the scene, but it also speaks to everything that separates “Young Sheldon” from “Big Bang”: The new half-hour CBS series isn’t a multi-cam sitcom, but a single-camera dramedy. In structure and tone, it has more in common with “Baskets” or “Divorce” than Chuck Lorre’s long-running ratings giant. It’s an entirely new direction for the franchise, and it’s as shocking to report this prequel is more melancholic than mawkish as it is to say that it’s also pretty darn good.
“Young Sheldon” begins simply enough. Jim Parsons’ narration introduces us to his “Big Bang” character’s younger self, who’s living in East Texas in the late summer of 1989. Sheldon Cooper, played by Iain Armitage, is about to skip a grade and start his first year of high school, much to his twin sister Missy’s (Raegan Revord) relief and his older brother Georgie’s (Montana Jordan) chagrin. Both siblings have been embarrassed by their brother’s high-brow tastes — Sheldon claims to have forged a Mid-Atlantic accent after hearing his family use words like “mashed potaters” in their Texas drawl — and his parents are put out by their friends and neighbors’ rejection of their advanced son.
Armitage does an admirable job spouting out intellectual dialogue with enough confidence to believe he knows what he’s saying (as opposed to a child actor reciting big words written by grown-ups). “This girl’s blouse is diaphanous, which means I can see her brassiere,” Sheldon says matter-of-factly in the middle of class. Sheldon also points out lapses in logic, like when his sister claims no one reads the high school rulebook, and uses period-appropriate phrases like “perhaps I’ll start a fad,” all without appearing disingenuous.
That Armitage doesn’t lean too heavily into cutesy moments should help skeptical viewers avoid rolling their eyes, but it also contributes to the series’ sense of woe. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the pilot; not easy ones, anyway. Sheldon lacks an easy ally in either sibling, but his parents are equally isolated. Sheldon’s mother, Mary (Zoe Perry), is markedly lonely. Her other children are too immature to offer any kind of friendship (yet), and her husband, George Sr. (Lance Barber), is at a loss when it comes to their son. He sympathizes with those who wish to dismiss Sheldon for being so strange, leaving Mary to shoulder a defense all on her own. The premiere frames the story as mother and son vs. the world, and even they don’t fully understand one another.
George, meanwhile, is more complicated than he first appears, and ends up a tragic figure by episode’s end. Introduced as a football coach with a curt attitude toward a wife he instinctually deems subservient, the father isn’t just an antagonist; he’s empathetic, and his development bodes well for a series with ample opportunity to expand on the trials and tribulations of being different, no matter your age. George helps frame the entire family as a motley crew of do-gooders beaten down by the world around them.
George is clinging to the job he loves, and he’s losing his family ever so slightly while mourning an unjust loss. Mary is trying to do the best for her kids. Everyone around her is willing to pass the problem along to someone else, leaving her to speak up for what everyone needs (except for her). And then there’s Sheldon, a beacon of inexplicable confidence who knows he’s different than the kids around him, but plows forward anyway. Knowledge is his power, and he’s feeding it daily, despite the judging eyes and hurtful words of his peers.
How this plays to a crowd who’s been laughing at nerds for 10 years remains to be seen. It’s almost as though Chuck Lorre (who co-wrote the pilot with Steve Molaro) finally gave in and made an entire series about the pain and suffering only alluded to in his multi-cam shows. Whether it was the switch to single-cam or the knowledge this spinoff has a big built-in audience, the decision certainly works in the show’s favor. “Young Sheldon” is surprising for all the right reasons; so much so, it’s hard to tell exactly where it will go next. And that’s a great feeling for a pilot about escaping a box made of everyone else’s expectations.
“Young Sheldon” premieres Monday, September 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS.