It seems like such an obvious, easy question that 9-year-old actor Iain Armitage’s sternly articulated, though kind, dismissal of it leaves you shaken. “Actually, I haven’t watched a lot of The Big Bang Theory,” Armitage, who will star as the childhood version of TV’s most popular character in the new CBS series Young Sheldon, responds when I ask what his favorite episode is. “It isn’t exactly appropriate for me.”
Oh, right. He’s only playing a character with intelligence far beyond his years. Armitage, though poised to be the year’s biggest breakout TV star, is still a 9-year-old kid. (With good parents, too.)
It doesn’t take a theoretical physicist on the level of Sheldon Cooper to predict that a spinoff of The Big Bang Theory, the CBS sitcom closing in on a decade of being the most-watched comedy on TV, was inevitable. But it’s doubtful that anyone predicted it would end up looking like Young Sheldon.
The series, which premieres Monday night before moving to its regular time slot on Thursdays in November, is, as CBS honchos told reporters this summer, the fastest “yes” ever given to a pitch: a spin-off of The Big Bang Theory focusing on Sheldon as a 9-year-old genius going to high school in East Texas in 1989.
That it would end up such a departure in tone and format from the sitcom juggernaut that birthed it, however, surprised everyone, including actor Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon on Big Bang and whose idea it was to spin off the younger version of the character in the first place.
The story of young Sheldon learning to adapt his idiosyncrasies to fit in as best he can in an unforgiving high school landscape—all the while figuring out healthy relationships with his twin sister, older brother, grandmother aka “Meemaw,” and his parents—in fact might resonate with viewers more as a kindred spirit to The Wonder Years than it does Big Bang.
The multi-camera, proscenium stage format? Gone. Laugh track? No more. In its place is a single-camera comedy—a softer, quieter origin story structured around Parson’s narration as grown-up Sheldon recalling his childhood.
“I don’t care how dimwitted you are, scientific principles have to make you smile,” Parson’s Sheldon narrates in the pilot. “Of course, nobody I knew in East Texas in 1989 cared about Newtonian physics. The only Newtons they cared about were Wayne and Fig.”
Early reviews have praised the series’ surprising sentimentality—in other words, that Wonder Years vibe—and executives at the network have been eager to point out that the pilot tested not only well with Big Bang fans, but also with those not familiar with the show at all.
Chuck Lorre, who co-created both Big Bang and Young Sheldon, has long been the multi-cam King Midas. Roseanne, Cybil, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, Mom: Say what you want about the spectrum of quality there, but each show had (or in the case of Mom, has) a long run, a rich syndication life, and, at some point in its lifespan, huge ratings and major Emmys attention.
The saying goes “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But with Young Sheldon, Lorre’s wielding a sledgehammer with reckless abandon. And, in fixing it, he is producing perhaps his most inspired work in years.
That doesn’t mean that Young Sheldon arrives fully formed as TV’s best single-cam family sitcom. (That would be The Middle, which launches its final under-appreciated season this week.) But it is something completely unexpected, and shrewdly hones in more closely on the secret ingredient, for all its “bazinga!” jokes and nerd puns, to The Big Bang Theory’s blockbuster success: its heart.
“The intimacy that we gain with the single camera allows for a lot of wonderful, really personal moments with the characters, and creates a lot of emotional reality,” says Zoe Perry, who plays Sheldon’s mother, Mary Cooper. “To see a young person going through difficulty just having to navigate a world he doesn’t understand and that even doesn’t understand him, it’s at times traumatic not only for him but his parents and his siblings and his family.”
(If it sounds like Perry has preternaturally nailed the voice of Laurie Metcalf, who plays Mary on Big Bang, chock it up to genetics: Perry is Metcalf’s daughter. “Being able to watch my mom’s performance on Big Bang helps, to know where the physicality lives and where the voice lives,” Perry says, then laughing: “And so does being able to just talk to her.”)
Lorre has said that the switch in format from Big Bang was owed to how much pressure nailing a performance in front of a studio audience would put on the young cast. But it also served to better accomplish the show’s ostensible mission: Through Armitage’s precociously expressive face, you better get to know Sheldon Cooper.
Comparisons to The Wonder Years are apt. In fact, Lorre and his team, who hadn’t written narration in a series before, looked to the coming-of-age classic and Kevin Arnold’s voiceover for guidance on how to nail the tone. But casting their own Kevin Arnold—a child actor capable of carrying a series—was, of course, even more pressing.
Armitage, who played Shailene Woodley’s son on Big Little Lies, was at his Meemaw’s house in Georgia for Christmas when his mother filmed his audition, a long, difficult monologue that Armitage cannily memorized. He was quickly flown out to L.A., “and then I got the part!” Armitage recounts chipperly. “It all went by so fast.”
Parsons and Armitage met for the first time in Lorre’s office. Parsons was initially hesitant to give too much advice on how to play the character, but he did say something that really stuck with Armitage. “He said if Sheldon had a choice between two different art pieces, and one was straight lines and one was all splotchy, he would probably choose straight lines,” Armitage says. “He likes order.”
Since this is a show about the growing pains of growing up in Texas, how Parsons’ own childhood in Houston compares to both young Sheldon and young Iain is a natural topic of conversation.
“I was not an overly bright child. I was mediocre. I didn’t befuddle my parents. That came much later, with my sexuality,” Parsons laughed, speaking to reporters over the summer. “So, no, it’s very different. And to the point of Iain, Iain’s so much more in control as a human being than I was back then.”
And for adult Jim Parsons, the entire experience thus far of working on Young Sheldon has been unexpectedly emotional.
“I have to tell you that it was a very moving experience to me to see something that I’ve put in a decade of my life toward,” he said. “In the same way that we’re mining the writing for what they’ve been putting in for those ten years, it was very moving for me to see this machine take off that’s related to all that… You don’t think when you’re putting together these kinds of things [that they] are going to add up to something like this. And to see it come back like that is very exciting.”
It should be said that in the time since being cast as young Sheldon, Armitage has watched a handful of scenes from the show to get a taste of Parsons’ performance. (An entire episode is still ruled inappropriate.) Does he have a favorite scene?
“I like the one in the ball pit,” he says, trailing off at the end of our conversation with a chorus of the famous Sheldon Cooper buzzword. “Bazinga! Bazinga! Bazinga!”