Nobody likes a self-consciously precocious kid. Precocious kids? Sure, it’s sweet when a kneebiter wants to talk politics. Self-consciously precocious? Pass. No one wants to listen to a kid explain why other kids don’t get it or kidsplain Austrian Economics. With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Young Sheldon, The Big Bang Theory spin-off exploring the Texas childhood of future scientist Sheldon Cooper in the late eighties, is grating. The character, who thinks he’s smarter than other people on the original show, was apparently always like that. For this reason, the show becomes about second-guessing parental decisions and resenting a child.
One of the biggest problems with Young Sheldon is that it works way too hard to let you know this kid is a little bit different. Young Sheldon, played by Iain Armitage, wears gloves at dinner because he doesn’t want to deal with his family’s germs. He walks in on a teacher playing the violin and begins playing the same melody piano before coyly stating that he’s never played before. Later in the scene, the teacher betrays all semblance of subtlety and outright tells him “you have perfect pitch.” This could all work if the show was at all funny, but it’s not. It feels like all these natural gifts have been bestowed on the wrong kid or the child of the wrong parents. One-upping people is a miserable use of talent. And there’s a lot of that.
Could that trope evolve into something interesting? Absolutely. But evolution is a bit antithetical to the Sheldon character. The point of the character on Big Bang is that he doesn’t change his behaviors to suit social situations or, well, anything else.
In his first class on his first day of high school (he’s nine, a fact mentioned casually some six times during the episode), Sheldon points out the way other students have violated the school’s dress code. The show is trying to show us that Sheldon lacks emotional intelligence, which is fine–if a bit cheap considering the autism kabuki of the original–but when Young Sheldon is pointing out his female teacher’s slight mustache, it just comes across as obnoxious and cruel. Whether it’s lazy writing, bad acting, or the lack of a studio audience (most likely, a combination of all three), the empathy the show wants us to feel for Young Sheldon just isn’t there. He’s not relatable so the audience doesn’t relate. This should not be a shock.
As adult Sheldon, Parsons has just enough cluelessness to make his character’s lack of social graces lovable and occasionally even funny. Sure, viewers ultimately like Sheldon, but we also can’t help but (sometimes) laugh at how absurd and dense someone so smart could be. He’s an adult genius with a successful career, but he still isn’t sure how to have basic small talk with a waitress without unintentionally saying something isolating or off-color. But with Young Sheldon, he just comes across as a smug asshole.
The lone saving grace of the show is Zoe Perry as Sheldon’s mom Mary. Zoe does a fantastic making Mary the only member of the family who seems to give a damn about anyone. She loves her son fiercely and will do what it takes to protect him from bullies and teachers. Mary may not understand what Sheldon is saying most of the time, but that just makes her affection all the more touching. Throughout the first episode, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more compelling this show would be if Sheldon’s mom was the main character instead of him. But sadly, she’ll just have to settle for being the show’s heart and soul.
The rest of the cast is fine, though mostly forgettable. Sheldon’s twin sister Missy provides the show’s idea of comic relief by simply stating obvious things about other characters in a deadpan tone. Georgie is the idiot brother who just wants to play football and ignore the fact that his nine-year-old brother is starting high school at the same time as him. And George is the overweight, slightly miserable dad who has a not so secret soft side hiding beneath his crude exterior. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before and you’ve probably seen these tropes done a lot better.
Perhaps, as the show goes on, it will work out its early kinks, include some actual jokes, and become a show that people can really enjoy. After all, comedies on TV are famous for taking a while to get their footing (Don’t believe me? When was the last time you watched the first season of Parks and Recreation?). But for now, Young Sheldon is nothing but a boring, strangely mean-spirited show that somehow makes you wish you were watching an episode of the Big Bang Theory instead.