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The Big Bland Backstory

‘Young Sheldon’ tries to explain ‘The Big Bang Theory’ character Sheldon Cooper’s various issues using a flat, unfunny show

Iain Armitage in ‘Young Sheldon’.
Iain Armitage in ‘Young Sheldon’.

To me, Daniel Stern will always be the voice of television childhood. Best known for playing the taller of the two robbers in the Home Alone movies, Stern memorably provided the calm but frequently provoked voice of the grown-up Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, narrating the show, holding it together and making the name “Winnie Cooper" absolutely unforgettable. For you, this role may be filled by Full House star Bob Saget voicing the grown-up whiner Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, Patton Oswalt going on as a nerdy 1980s kid in The Goldbergs, or even Chris Rock autobiographically riffing on his own youth in Everybody Hates Chris. As television has taught us, childhood only makes sense with the benefit of hindsight and perspective.

The idea behind Young Sheldon is simple: a prequel spin-off from Chuck Lorre’s endless television “comedy" The Big Bang Theory focusing on the show’s most popular character, Sheldon Cooper. Played by Jim Parsons, the character is a socially awkward bully who is supposed to be amusing because of his lack of normality and understanding, standing out even amid the geek community the show exploitatively stereotypes. It is a mediocre and unfunny show, but the idea of Sheldon—that of a fish out of water, or a Spock out of space—is a classic that leads to humorous situations. Or at least that’s what the laugh-track tells us.

Young Sheldon, showing in India on Amazon Prime, suffers from an entirely different problem. Seeing Cooper as a grown astrophysicist throwing fits about bathroom schedules might provide a tickle, but seeing him as a young boy unable to fit in is merely melancholy. Iain Armitage, who plays little Sheldon, was last seen on the actor-heavy Big Little Lies, where he played the inscrutable young Ziggy accused of biting a child. Here, trying to act as the clueless (yet cute, always cute) Sheldon, you can see the poor young actor trapped under the flatness of the character.

The first episode is enough cause for concern. While the sitcom is one of the last remaining successful canned-laughter comedies, the new show goes in a more modern direction, leaving out artificial laughs and shot with a single-camera perspective. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have alerted the writers—and director Jon Favreau, the man behind Jungle Book and Iron Man—that the show was supposed to be smart, so we have an entirely hokey and unfunny half-hour made up of people telling bad jokes, explaining them and then waiting in awkward silence because the audience isn’t laughing. This feels like a show we changed channels away from 20 years ago.

Parsons, as the star of The Big Bang Theory, narrates his life as Young Sheldon but has an awfully insipid set of lines to work with, while Armitage, as the kid, is severely short-changed. As little Sheldon continues to take things far too literally while outpacing the world around him with his precocious genius brain, he appears like a human version of the little robot Vicki from Small Wonder. Which basically means the joke isn’t a joke any more. As a show, this new one is a no (a no no-no-no-no no, even).

Over on Netflix, there is a brand new animated show about children that is decidedly not for children. Big Mouth—created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett—is a severely foul-mouthed and visually explicit cartoon (complete with singing-dancing genitalia) that surprised me with its insights, its vulgarity and, most of all, its candour. First of all, the high-schoolers are all drawn like much younger children, which goes some way in reminding us how vulnerable nearly-teenagers really are.

There is a hilarious discussion on what young boys think kissing entails, for example, with vividly declared statements on how much tongue needs to be used. These are children who we see being controlled by hulking and unstoppable hormone monsters who constantly steer them in realistically wrong directions. Kroll, who was unforgettably sleazy as Rodney Ruxin in The League, leads a voice-cast that includes Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, Jessi Klein and Fred Armisen, and the actors have an infectiously good time with the material.

Visually, the show looks like a cross between Bob’s Burgers and The Ren & Stimpy Show but it is more imaginative than it seems at first, and I urge you to give it a go. The approach might be unashamedly juvenile but the subjects tackled are compelling and rarely discussed. Be it young girls discovering the right time to cry silently and choosing to do so, or boys who find themselves turned on by pec-heavy trailers of a movie featuring The Rock (a movie directed by Bryan Singer, we’re told).

Big Mouth makes for a solid, entertaining and unexpectedly evocative binge, one that reminded me how tricky certain aspects of those years in and around puberty really were. Even if I didn’t give the big hormone monster talking to me a name—or at least one I choose to remember. As one child says to another while sharing moments of mutual mortification, “everything is embarrassing". “Everything is so embarrassing," replies the other with a relieved smile. And so it stays, kids. All that changes—if we’re lucky—is that we start giving less of a damn about monsters of all shapes.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

The writer tweets at @rajasen

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