In late September, CBS debuted the first episodes of two new series. One brought me to a place unlike anything I’d ever encountered on Earth and featured a cast of characters who were totally alien to me. The other one was Star Trek: Discovery.
I’ve never watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory, the Chuck Lorre comedy that spawned the prequel series Young Sheldon, but I do know that it is crazy successful. Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Old Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and delivers a saccharine voiceover in the new show, has won four Emmys and earns $1 million per episode of the ratings juggernaut. Talk to a large and vocal contingent of people online, though, and they’ll tell you that The Big Bang Theory is a cancer.
Despite being about a bunch of geniuses, The Big Bang Theory is a pretty dumb show. The jokes are low-brow, it uses nerd culture as a punchline rather than actually engaging with it, and uses geekdom to excuse a pretty wicked misogynistic streak. But, whatever — if it’s what makes people happy when they turn on the TV after a long day of work, then good for them. The Big Bang Theory isn’t a popular show among more “elite” audiences — for lack of a better term — the liberal-leaning folk who might prefer something like Atlanta, but even haters have to understand the appeal of an old-school sitcom with a laugh track.
Young Sheldon is different, though.
As played by 9-year-old Iain Armitage, Young Sheldon exhibits weapons-grade adorableness. He’s impossibly precious as he begins his first day at high school after skipping several grades due to his brains. His family has no idea what to do with him, save for his mother, Mary (Zoe Perry), who protects and supports her special son. Young Sheldon is not a funny show. There’s no laugh track paired with this single-camera drama, which lights every frame with a nostalgic golden hue. Fans of The Big Bang Theory who are looking for laughs and a kiddie version of their favorite dweeb will be out of luck — and if you’re looking for a moving family drama, well, This Is Us does a better job.
Still, Young Sheldon is trying; it’s just not exactly clear where it’s coming from. The sun-kissed Texas town Sheldon grew up in has all the narrative trappings of a simpler time and, somewhat toxically, “Real America.” These are good folk, the pilot says, and Sheldon’s brains and lack of social skills don’t fit in. Yet, the show sets him up as a young, naive hero who is too good for this podunk origin. Are we supposed to be laughing at all the idiots whose paltry IQs pale in comparison to Young Sheldon’s? Or are we meant to see him as a budding elite who doesn’t understand the truly important values that are expected of him?
As The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg noted in his review, to like Young Sheldon as a character requires forgetting what an insufferable ass Old Sheldon is at the start of The Big Bang Theory. This also makes finding warmth in his childhood and upbringing difficult, since as Fienberg notes, “He never sees his brother, rarely sees his sister and speaks of his Texas upbringing with consistent contempt.”
In Young Sheldon, we have a soft-focus depiction of a simpler America starring a hero destined for better things, even though the show’s trying to impart that his future couldn’t possibly be better than his humble beginnings.
Meanwhile, Star Trek: Discovery gave me a main character, Sonequa Martin-Green’s First Officer Michael, who grew up in outer space in the far future, saw Klingons murder her entire family, was raised by Spock’s Vulcan father, and constantly battles her repressed need for revenge while attempting to emulate her adoptive species’ lack of emotion. This, to me, makes more sense than 9-year-old Sheldon Cooper.
Comparing Star Trek: Discovery and Young Sheldon might seem like comparing apples to oranges. (They’re both CBS prequels that premiered a day apart, so, at the very least, they’re both fruits.) But if Star Trek: Discovery’s apple is a bold new chapter in a classic sci-fi franchise, Young Sheldon might actually be some sort of agricultural mutant.
It’s possible that I’m woefully out of touch since I live in New York and grew up on the coast. Sheldon’s upbringing isn’t like my own, but he seems to have come of age in such an uncanny valley of sweetness and pre-pubescent, condescending snark that I can’t imagine it’s familiar to too many people, regardless of their hometown. But if Star Trek: Discovery feels more familiar than Young Sheldon, it’s clear we’re not living on the same planet.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery premiere every Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS All Access, while Young Sheldon* returns on November 2 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.