Back when the new fall TV season began, I started making mental notes about how I might sum up the year in television once December rolled around. I half-jokingly kicked around the idea of writing a list of, “The Best Shows You’ve Never Heard Of.” The big story in TV for the past few years has been the proliferation of new outlets for original programming, which has made it impossible for critics or viewers to keep up with everything. The result is that some genuinely remarkable series — like Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber, and Viceland’s What Would Diplo Do? — came and went in 2017 without sparking much chatter.
But you know what other show has barely been discussed? This year’s most popular new sitcom.
I don’t want to give the impression that no one’s talking about Young Sheldon. When CBS’s The Big Bang Theory spinoff was announced, it generated plenty of on-line eye-rolls from BBT’s many detractors. And when it debuted, it drew generally positive reviews. But while it’s consistently landed in Nielsen’s weekly Top 10 most-watched shows — both inside the coveted 18-49 demographic and and out — Young Sheldon’s not exactly leading the way in buzz.
“So what?,” some may ask (quite reasonably). No one talks much about SEAL Team, either; and while that’s one of the other big new hits of the fall, few would argue that there’s much distinguishing it from the half-dozen or so other military/police/legal/spy procedurals on the air right now. Why would TV critics and fans talk about SEAL Team? There’s really not a lot to say.
Young Sheldon though isn’t like SEAL Team — or anything else on TV, for that matter. Although it’s a single-camera show, set in the recent past, with the main character narrating stories from his own childhood, it’s more akin to the quiet reflectiveness of The Wonder Years than the similarly structured but more boisterous nostalgia-piece The Goldbergs. Jim Parsons, in the monotone voice of his genius physicist Big Bang Theory character Sheldon Cooper, looks back at growing up in a small Texas town, around people who didn’t share — and mostly didn’t appreciate — his intellect. From the setting to the tone, Young Sheldon is very much its own thing.
There are some commonalities to The Big Bang Theory, granted. As Sheldon’s mother Mary, actress Zoe Perry does a remarkable imitation of her own mother Laurie Metcalf, who plays Mary on BBT. And because both shows are from Chuck Lorre Productions (as is the excellent Mom, which airs on the same night), there’s a certain acid sting even in moments that are otherwise sweet. There’s never any sense with Young Sheldon that Lorre and his writers are trying to say that Texas in the late 1980s was the best time and place for a young smartypants to be. If there’s an overarching philosophy that’s governed Lorre’s shows since his days working on Roseanne and Grace Under Fire, it’s that life is inescapably crummy, so we may as well enjoy each other’s company and have some laughs before everything sinks for good.
But it speaks to some of the richer themes of Young Sheldon that the details of its protagonist’s life don’t completely synch up what regular Big Bang Theory viewers might’ve been led to expect. The adult Sheldon’s memories of his childhood on BBT have largely painted a bleak picture of Texas as a hostile alien world to someone as unique as he. In Young Sheldon though, we see a mom and dad (the latter superbly played by Lance Barber) who clearly love their strange little kid. And one of Lorre and co-creator Steven Molaro’s best moves was to cast the sublime Annie Potts as Sheldon’s drunken “Meemaw,” who adds a generous sprinkling of Southern spice.
All of this matters in large part because the character of Sheldon Cooper has often been divisive. Initially introduced on The Big Bang Theory as one of television’s few characters on the autistic spectrum — though never officially declared as such — Sheldon’s every choice and gesture was scrutinized for his first few years on the air, for how well it represented people with ASD. Since then, TV has introduced many more openly autistic characters (including in yet another of this fall’s new hits, The Good Doctor), and Sheldon’s gone back to being a more common sitcom eccentric.
As played by the talented child actor Iain Armitage (seen also this year in HBO’s Big Little Lies), the young Sheldon doesn’t wholly resemble the older Sheldon, which means that he comes across more as one of pop culture’s precocious braniacs, and not as someone with a neurological disorder. Still, there’s something poignant about his obliviousness to his family’s kindness, and to the vivid local color that was the background to his youth. It’s almost like Young Sheldon is telling two stories: One about the highs and lows of life in Texas, and one about a man too locked in his own head to appreciate the former.
Let me be clear: I am by no means saying that Young Sheldon is TV’s best sitcom, or even in the top tier. One of the problems with the current way we talk about television is that a modest suggestion like “Hey, if you’re looking for something to watch, this is better than you might think” gets squeezed through social media’s tight constraints and comes out as overhype. Young Sheldon has only been on the air for a couple of months. It’s still finding its voice.
The good news though is that the high ratings should mean that the show has plenty of time to mature, and to develop its minor characters and recurring motifs more (as Mom and The Big Bang Theory have done). And if nothing else, Young Sheldon’s relatively muted tones and slower pace of have already been a nice change from ABC’s similar single-camera family sitcoms, which — while very good — have developed a kind of zippy house style that can make their elements seem interchangeable.
I’m also by no means implying that my fellow critics are falling down on the job by not covering Young Sheldon more aggressively. I have an embarrassingly large list of acclaimed and/or popular shows I don’t watch. I’ve never seen a minute of This Is Us, for example. And I’m stubbornly resistant to the charms of countless beloved series, from Nathan for You to Casual.
Still, it says something about television in 2017 that a Top 10 sitcom with a distinctive point-of-view barely moves the needle in terms of the larger critical conversation. The main thing it says is that there’s just too much TV. And on a slightly smaller level, it says that we’ve become a fragmented culture, sorted into sealed bubbles.
Neither of those are original insights, I realize. They’re pretty much been the starting point for every discussion of television trends for the past five years. But in this year when the great migration of “content” to new standalone subscription streaming services really began in earnest (thanks to Young Sheldon’s network home, CBS), I do worry that it’s only a matter of time before something that 10 million people watch every week becomes the best show you’ve never heard of… because none of those 10 million are talking to you.