Young Sheldon: Who Watches This?
If you had to crown one person the “King of Sitcoms”, who would you choose? Perhaps you’d pick Larry David, Greg Daniels, or Michael Shur. Maybe you’d choose Dick Van Dyke if you’re a fan of the oldies, or Bill Cosby if you haven’t read the news in the last six years. So many TV legends have made a name and a fortune for themselves by innovating televised comedy’s most popular genre, but only one person has earned the right to have the moniker “King of Sitcoms” adorned on their Wikipedia page – Chuck Lorre.
The middle-of-the-road multi-cam magnate. The big cheese of broad appeal. The auteur of average, conventional, family-friendly sitcoms who has single-handedly kept the laugh track alive and enthralled millions upon millions of viewers on broadcast television for the last three decades. His massively successful projects Roseanne, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory have been the de-facto entertainment option of waiting rooms, commercial airline flights, and weekends at your rural relatives’ house.
One particular project stands out for how remarkably familiar it is – Young Sheldon. The prequel to the smash hit The Big Bang Theory features the show’s eponymous prodigy Sheldon Cooper as a gifted child in rural Texas who struggles to fit in with both his peers and his family. It’s a Chuck Lorre formula, fish-out-of-water story, and as it approaches the end of its fifth season, we only have one question – who is this for?
To understand the audience of Young Sheldon, it is necessary to first marvel at the absolutely astounding success of its predecessor, The Big Bang Theory. During its peak, the Chuck Lorre production averaged over 20 million viewers per episode, and in its tenth and eleventh seasons, TBBT was the single most watched weekly program in television, even beating out Sunday Night Football. Yes, America chose the funny science nerds over football. It’s like a bad ‘80s comedy come to life.
The formula for TBBT’s success is one that is tried and true in the sitcom format – all characters exist on a sliding scale from normal to eccentric. The eccentrics lack the self-awareness to know how eccentric they are, so it’s up to the normals to call it out to riotous laughter and thunderous applause from the live studio audience. Plot lines are structured to put obstacles in the way of the normals that force cooperation with eccentrics. The eccentrics frustrate the normals with their quirkiness, but the eccentrics always manage to save the day through their strangeness, thus allowing the episode to end on a moment of empathy and understanding. Queue the catchphrase. Roll credits.
Because the spectrum from normal to eccentric is so wide, anyone can find a character to whom they relate. If you’re 60% normal, 40% eccentric, you’re a Leonard. If you’re 95% normal, 5% eccentric, you’re a Penny. If you’re fully 100% eccentric, then, well, you’re a Sheldon. But the insidious aspect of TBBT is also the variable in Chuck Lorre’s formula that separates his CBS cash cows from all other broadcast TV sitcoms – you also get to assign characters to others. Very few people will identify as a Sheldon, but millions of TBBT viewers know a Sheldon.
That is what’s so galvanizing about the character, and that’s why Howard Wolowitz doesn’t have a prequel. The vast majority of people will place themselves on the normal end of the spectrum, and whether it’s a socially awkward cousin, a lanky classmate who likes comic books, or a nephew who wears Minecraft t-shirts, most people have a nerdy, atypical, and inscrutable person in their lives whom they just cannot understand or relate to. The Sheldon Cooper character acts as an accessible stand-in for those people, and there is an absolutely bottomless well of potential for absolutely mid-tier jokes about the disconnect between that kind of person and “normal” folk.
This is the target audience for Young Sheldon. The Normies. Middle America. Suburban moms in flyover states. With the show’s strong emphasis on family values and the dynamics of a religious upbringing, Chuck Lorre aims to eschew the coastal elites and sardonic wannabe comedy writers who trashed The Big Bang Theory and thumb their noses at any TV show that has a character named “Meemaw.”
Young Sheldon juxtaposes the peculiarities of TV’s favorite funny scientist with the traditional environment of a religious upbringing in rural Texas. Sheldon’s dad is a football coach, and his mom is a devout Southern Baptist. His older brother is a football star, but a poor student. His Meemaw cracks wise and makes brisket. Chuck Lorre dresses the show in all the trappings and tropes of a King of the Hill-esque middle class upbringing, then uses his aloof wunderkind star to create that dissonance between funny awkward guy and relatable normal people from where endless humor can be pulled.
Nothing screams “Middle America” like the comment section of a broadcast sitcom’s Facebook page, so let’s hear from some of the Young Sheldon faithful:
The trend is clear – people like Young Sheldon because they relate to it. They see themselves and their loved ones in the small town stories about family, friendship, and fitting in. What keeps people coming back to Chuck Lorre’s shows is that, not only can they see their own lives, their friends, and their families on the small screen, but that these people are treated with compassion, whether in spite or because of their differences. The normal characters learn to accept their own flaws by appreciating the strangeness of the eccentrics.
Chuck Lorre had this to say while discussing his other show Mom, “Broken people trying to repair their lives, I can relate to that, I know a lot of people that can relate to the comedy in the repair business of a person’s life. I think we’re all in the process of doing a little mending.”
Even at their most predictable, Chuck Lorre shows have an undercurrent of compassion and a lack of cynicism which allows the audience to attempt to understand characters who are so different from themselves, even if those differences are played for a laugh. Young Sheldon celebrates its quirky outcast, and his family loves him even when they can’t understand him.
For all the snark, the memes, and the reddit posts dedicated to denigrating The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon alike, the number of people who connect with these shows will always vastly outnumber the number of people who find the humor grating, the characters insulting, and the writing tepid. Young Sheldon still pulls in millions of viewers every week, and the swaths of Middle Americans who connect with the story of a Texas family trying to make it work with their outlandish son aren’t going anywhere.
We’re still not going to watch it ourselves.
Top Image: Chuck Lorre Productions / Warner Bros. Television
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