I Hate How Much I Love “Young Sheldon”

My relationship with “The Big Bang Theory” is complicated. Objectively, it’s not a very good show. The writers will avoid character growth and meaningful plot developments in favor of mean-spirited jokes and writing cliches. The main male characters often behave in a sexist, misogynistic way toward the female characters, who are expected to grin and bear this behavior. Or if the actress is given any freedom, she may be allowed to “make an angry face” or “roll her eyes” at this blatant sexism.

Also, my undergraduate degree was in Biology and Anthropology. I hope to go into Science Communication for my career, so I am interested in how science is portrayed on TV. When I see scientists portrayed as sexist dorks, it bothers me. It enforces stereotypes about scientists, men who don’t fit the “traditional masculine mold,” the field of science, and attitudes about women in science.

So you can imagine my distress when after a stressful couple of weeks, I started watching “The Big Bang Theory,” and couldn’t stop.

It started innocently enough. I found an interesting article about scientist portrayals in the media. The article stated that Leonard Hofstadter, the main character from “The Big Bang Theory,” was considered a positive portrayal of a scientist. Like it or not, “The Big Bang Theory” was one of the most popular shows in America, dominating television for 12 years. It had a wide-ranging audience that spanned the political spectrum, and that was enough to make me curious about its content. I wanted to know if this wildly popular, “pro-science” show ever discussed actual scientific issues that impacted and divided the American public. Issues like vaccinations, climate change, nuclear power, and genetically-modified organisms.

Long story short, it didn’t, and I think that is a waste.

However, that didn’t stop me from watching five seasons of the damn show and even rewatching the clips that I found charming. I’m ashamed to admit that I liked many elements of the show. The blog post (weakly) defending “The Big Bang Theory” is sadly in the works.

I do have some self-respect, so I eventually weaned myself off it. But not completely. I couldn’t let myself watch all twelve seasons of the show, but I wasn’t strong enough to go cold turkey. I needed a middle ground. And I knew the spin-off series, “Young Sheldon,” was in its sixth season.

I don’t like Sheldon Cooper. I think he’s the personification of the worst character trope that unfortunately bleeds into real life: the idea that a person can be an asshole if they’re smarter than everyone. And these characters are everywhere: Rick Sanchez, Sherlock Holmes from BBC’s Sherlock, Tony Stark, etc. These characters speak to an insidious voice in people’s heads that says that being intelligent makes them superior to other people. It doesn’t, and you’re not. Just a reminder that the ability to read quickly or do well on a calculus test doesn’t mean anything if you’re still a dick.

So yeah, I wasn’t all that interested in Sheldon Cooper’s childhood in East Texas, but I’ve been bored and emotionally overwhelmed, so I gave it a try.

The show is stylistically different from “The Big Bang Theory” in that it is not a multicamera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience. “Young Sheldon” is gentler on the senses as it lacks that intrusive soundtrack and bright studio lights. While I immensely prefer the format of “Young Sheldon,” I find there were many other changes in tone and characterization that have made the show infinitely more palatable than its origin.

For one, the main female characters: Sheldon’s Mom, Mary, his Meemaw, Connie, and his twin sister, Missy, are not only interesting but also allowed a wide range of expression. Meemaw, played brilliantly by Annie Potts, is fiercely independent and nonconventional yet incredibly loving to her grandchildren. Mary, played by Zoe Perry, is still Sheldon’s loving and overprotective mother, but she clearly has social and career aspirations of her own related to her church and community. And Missy, who was crudely dismissed in “The Big Bang Theory” as Sheldon’s “hot, dumb twin sister,” may not be book smart, but she shows a shrewd intelligence that easily juxtaposes Sheldon’s braininess.

Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory” is an infuriating character. He’s selfish, immature, and struggles with basic empathy. However, watching his interactions with the other main characters in “The Big Bang Theory” can be uncomfortable sometimes. On the rare occasions his behavior is corrected, Sheldon will apologize for his behavior and try to make improvements. However, when he usually says something out of pocket (multiple times per episode), his friends respond with ridicule, irritation, or ignore him. His supposed friends will joke about how they hate spending time with him and delight in his absence, and the audience laughs as if it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. And the whole time, as I watch these situations unfold, I find myself thinking, “Why don’t you just tell him he’s being offensive?”

Don’t get me wrong. I get that confrontation can be terrifying and awful, but there are plenty of instances where they tell him off. Why not just continue doing that or stop hanging out with him altogether?

“Young Sheldon” feels much more refreshing because although young Sheldon Cooper is still an annoying eccentric, his family constantly checks his behavior. The show still generates plenty of jokes about him being a difficult child, but it also gives the other characters in the show room to dish it out as well. We see that his family constantly challenges him to try and do better. Or they recognize where his feelings come from, acknowledge those feelings, and then offer suggestions for correction. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than the mean-spirited passive aggressiveness we see on near-constant display in “The Big Bang Theory.”

In this clip Sheldon is being annoying, so his Meemaw does this radical thing called “talking to him” and everything is fine

Although Sheldon is the star of “Young Sheldon,” all of the Coopers exist outside their relationship with him. The complexities of raising a child genius in the bible belt drive the majority of the plot, but there are still plenty of other stories to be told. Also, there’s the implicit understanding that certain eccentricities that are intolerable in adults are a lot more amusing when coming from child actors.

(Adult Sheldon saying “Bazinga” is the worst thing I’ve ever heard, but the child actor saying it while unsuccessfully trying to pull pranks on his family is pretty funny)

“Young Sheldon” is not the best show ever created, but after watching two seasons, I think it’s a lot stronger than “The Big Bang Theory.” The main lead does a good job of balancing the line between youthful precociousness and insufferable arrogance. The characters, and by extension, the actors’ performances, are more fully-realized and well-rounded. Jim Parson’s narrative is warm and fond, lacking Sheldon’s usual nasal intonation, which provides a nice softness to the events of his childhood. “Young Sheldon” has all the sweetness that “The Big Bang Theory” tends to lack. I’m still mortified that I like anything remotely connected to “The Big Bang Theory,” but at least I can justify it.


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