(The 2017-18 broadcast network TV season officially begins on Monday night. Most of this fall’s new shows are uninspiring at best, and even the more promising ones feel like they have a ways to go to fulfill that promise. As a result, I won’t be reviewing every new show, and many of my reviews will either be brief or, in this case, combine two different shows about which I have roughly one column’s worth of feelings.)
Through ten seasons and counting, The Big Bang Theory has been careful to avoid giving Jim Parson’s Sheldon Cooper any kind of diagnosis that would explain his behavior. You can speculate about where he might lie on the autism spectrum, or if he’s on there at all, but to the show’s writers, he’s just Sheldon, which gives them license to not make him a standard-bearer for a large and very diverse group of people.
Big Bang is back Monday night at 8, followed by the debut of a prequel series, Young Sheldon, which has an even easier time of not giving Sheldon’s any kind of classification, since it begins in 1989, when the general public’s only image of an autistic person was Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. But Young Sheldon debuts on the same night as ABC’s new medical drama The Good Doctor, which is very explicit about its title character having high-functioning autism, to the point where it’s virtually all the show’s supporting players talk about during the pilot episode (which airs Monday at 10; with both shows, I’ve only seen the first installment).
So we have two new shows, albeit in wildly different genres, premiering on the same night about boyish savants with minimal social skills at best, one not really interested in explaining its title character’s genius, the other concerned at first with nothing but. The latter approach becomes a problem for The Good Doctor pilot, while Young Sheldon‘s debut winds up magnifying an issue that Big Bang Theory has often struggled with.
In The Good Doctor, Freddie Highmore from Bates Motel plays the eponymous talented surgeon, Shaun Murphy, preparing to begin his first day on the job at a San Jose hospital run by his mentor, Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff). Shaun is brilliant, with a Sherlock Holmes-ian ability to diagnose obscure injuries and ailments from only a few simple visual cues, but he also has a flat affect, struggles with eye contact, and isn’t even aware of the value of polite social interaction, let alone possesses the skills to do it. So Dr. Glassman’s colleagues — particularly Hill Harper as the aloof Horace Andrews — spend much of the premiere trying to argue that Shaun shouldn’t be allowed to work there, while an oblivious Shaun is busy saving the life of a boy gravely injured in an accident at the airport.
The show is from House creator David Shore, who has an understandable knack for telling medical procedural stories about a smart doctor who doesn’t care about playing nice with others. (Some House fans tried to make armchair diagnoses of the title character as being on the spectrum, too.) And the parts of the pilot that are just about Shaun improvising surgical procedures with whatever he can find on a TSA conveyer belt, or flashbacks to Shaun’s very difficult childhood, are effective, and promise a solid, if familiar, show to come.
But boy oh boy do the scenes where his colleagues debate Shaun’s fitness for the job labor, while also feeling like artifacts from around when Big Bang Theory debuted, if not earlier. There are reasons to be cautious about having Shaun interact with patients and their families, but there are moments where it seems like Glassman is having to explain what autism is from scratch to a roomful of medical professionals, in an era when spectrum disorders are so prevalent that it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t know anyone affected by it.
Some of this can be diagnosed as a familiar TV condition known as pilot-itis, where writers feel compelled (whether by personal instinct or nervous network executives) to overexplain the premise of their show lest they risk even a single viewer not understanding it. And Shore has said that he’d like to devote much less time going forward to other characters arguing for or against Shaun’s competence and more time on telling the kinds of medical stories he handles so well. But this is one of several new shows this fall that might have been better served foregoing a premise pilot altogether and just starting out with Shaun’s second or third day at work, rather than his first.
Young Sheldon — created by Big Bang vets Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro — is a stylistic departure from its parent show: single-camera, shot on film without studio audience laughter, and with Jim Parsons narrating as the adult Sheldon to invite further The Wonder Years comparisons. But the most important difference — and one perhaps very difficult for the show to overcome — is the context in which we watch Iain Armitage as the nine-year-old Sheldon, living at home in East Texas with mother Mary (Zoe Perry, real-life daughter of Laurie Metcalfe, who sounds exactly like her mom does playing the present-day Mary on Big Bang), father George (Lance Barber), older brother Georgie (Montana Jordan), and twin sister Missy (Raegan Revord).
A core part of the humor on Big Bang is that the adult Sheldon is so rigid and insensitive that he can be tremendously difficult to be around, even for the friends who care about him most. At times, that idea gets pushed too far, so that even Parson’s innate vulnerability isn’t quite enough to explain why Leonard, Penny, and the others would want to spend any time with this nerdy bully. Young Sheldon isn’t quite as overbearing, but at the same time his family is stuck with him in a way adult Sheldon’s friends aren’t, while he in turn doesn’t have the protections of money, professional stature, and a community of fellow Star Trek fans that he will in a few decades. Everyone in the family seems profoundly lonely, despite all living under the same roof.
When I asked about this issue at the TCA press tour in August, Lorre suggested that Parsons’ fundamental charm allowed them to let Sheldon be tough, even “despicable,” towards his friends at times, “But when you take those same qualities and ask a nine-year-old to bring that, it’s a brat. That’s not something that’s very pleasant. And so we made a decision, Steve and I, early on that we’re going to enter his life when he’s very naive, when he’s not yet become cynical and overly [in] control. He has his idiosyncrasies, but he’s a much more vulnerable and naive character as we enter the story in 1989.”
But even with his behavior tamped down a bit, Young Sheldon feels sadder than the parent show — and even sadder than perhaps Lorre and Molaro intended. The pilot deals with Sheldon entering high school years ahead of schedule, much to the dismay of Georgie, George Sr. (who coaches football there), and the many teachers whom he quickly learns to belittle without realizing why this is not okay. Mary seems perpetually on the verge of tears about finding him a place to fit in, even as she doesn’t see a better solution than this one, and both Sheldon’s father and his siblings can barely hide their resentment at having to make their lives fit into his. As a bitter Georgie puts it at one point, “Ever since he could talk, I quit having choices.” It’s extremely melancholy, even with an obligatory sweet family moment at the pilot’s climax, and Lorre and Molaro — both of whom have spent their careers in traditional multi-cam sitcoms like Big Bang — are still figuring out how best to craft jokes for this format.
Ideally, this would be CBS’ version of an ABC family comedy like Fresh Off the Boat or Speechless — perhaps even bringing in some viewers who don’t enjoy the setup-joke-setup-joke rhythms of the parent show — but it’s darker and less funny than any of them so far. Young Sheldon is already enough of a stylistic departure from Big Bang to perhaps turn off even some fans who own multiple “Bazinga!” t-shirts; the increased focus on the emotional reality of what it’s like to be, or love, Sheldon Cooper only seems to raise the barrier to entry.
There’s promising raw material in both shows (with Young Sheldon, it’s the mother/son dynamic and the chemistry between Perry and Armitage), but they have work to do refining it after these pilots. The Good Doctor may have an easier time becoming just another hospital show about an atypical doctor, though, than Young Sheldon will in finding a more upbeat way to portray what life was like for the Cooper family back in the day.