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'Young Sheldon' premiere postmortem: Showrunner on tone and timeline of 'The Big Bang Theory' prequel

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Iain Armitage as 9-year-old Sheldon Cooper in ‘Young Sheldon’ (Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS)

Warning: This interview about the series premiere of Young Sheldon contains spoilers.

So, what did you fans of The Big Bang Theory think? The tone of Young Sheldon, the Sheldon Cooper prequel series, is certainly less sitcom-y than the mothership, and we find that to be a delightful departure. And for newbies to the Cooper family story, are you feeling all kinds of Wonder Years vibes from the coming-of-age comedy about the exceptionally intelligent (and sometimes exceptionally difficult) Sheldon?

The series previewed Monday and will officially premiere in the CBS lineup on Nov. 2. Showrunner Steve Molaro, who left the same job at TBBT to run the show at Young Sheldon, talked to Yahoo TV about the fun and challenges of switching Sheldon Cooper timelines. Molaro said he and the Sheldon writers are relishing the opportunity to dive deeper into Cooper family history, including a look at how living with Sheldon isn’t always fun and games, how adult Sheldon’s POV of his family might not exactly match up with the reality of every situation, and how adult Sheldon might not have the whole picture on his dad.

Molaro also teased a look at the special relationship between Sheldon and his grandmother (played by Annie Potts) — the tale of a Meemaw and her Moonpie.

Having spent so many years on The Big Bang Theory, what has it been like switching to this different timeline for Sheldon Cooper?
It’s been exciting. Right from the beginning, Chuck [Lorre] and I got to work with Jon Favreau on the pilot. That was tremendous. From the beginning, Jon had described in his mind that what we were doing was an origin story. That sounded right to us. We thought that was really cool. I can tell you the first time I went on the set and walked around what is Sheldon’s house, and walked into what is Sheldon’s childhood bedroom, it felt so real. It was an emotional experience.

Jon directed the pilot. Will he continue to be involved with the show?
He’s a busy guy. He’s doing The Lion King right now, but he’s around, and he’s terrific. I know that if we need him, he’s a phone call away.

What did you focus on in terms of making sure the show honored longtime Sheldon fans from The Big Bang Theory, but was also entertaining for new fans?
We’re pretty familiar with all the stories from Sheldon’s past, through The Big Bang Theory. We’re familiar with his mom, Mary, and their relationship. I mean, right out of the gate in this first episode, we knew that Sheldon started high school at a young age, around nine. So right there we’re kind of digging in to show history. Then we just asked ourselves, “Well, okay, if that’s where this is starting, what would happen next?” One of those pieces was, I guess he’d be starting high school at the same time his [older] brother would, which was an interesting wrinkle for a family.

There are also nice little shout-outs to Professor Proton (Bob Newhart) and Sheldon’s germ phobia, which will be familiar to TBBT fans.
And he wants to play a car game with his mom. Also, we don’t really highlight it, but in the final scene with his dad, Sheldon is sitting in his spot on the couch.

Montana Jordan as Georgie, Armitage, Lance Barber as George, Sr, Zoe Perry as Mary, and Raegan Revord as Missy (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

I love that. That scene with his dad — one of the first things that stands out in the premiere is Sheldon’s relationship with his dad. We know a little bit about that from TBBT. We know that it’s contentious in a lot of ways, according to adult Sheldon, but there’s an incredibly sweet bonding moment that comes about between Sheldon and his dad in the pilot. His dad is frustrated by Sheldon’s intelligence, and the ways it affects the family, but it’s also because Sheldon’s aware enough and smart enough to make certain connections, so he is able to understand what happened to his dad when he got fired from his football coaching job. Is that indicative of the way we’re going to see their relationship unfold?
We’re still figuring things out, but these are two people that really don’t understand each other very well. But they’re trying. How far they get is to be determined, but it’s nice to watch them make these attempts. And I think there may be more layers to his dad than people realize, and I think even more than adult Sheldon realizes. Those stories on The Big Bang Theory are being relayed from the memories of a kid’s perspective, and stories he heard, and things his Meemaw said about his dad. Maybe the reality and what Sheldon’s perspective of it is aren’t quite in line.

As you said, we’re hearing the stories about his family from adult Sheldon’s perspective. His family is certainly frustrating to him, and he feels they have made his life difficult in a lot of ways. We can see how that would be true, but now we’re seeing the flip side, and you really can sympathize with Georgie, and his twin sister, and his parents, in terms of the real ways Sheldon’s gifts, and his personality at times, made their lives more difficult.
Yeah. This is as much about his family dealing with having this exceptional, and at times difficult, child in their lives.

It’s a great cast, too. Iain Armitage was such a scene-stealer in Big Little Lies, and here, it really feels like you have the younger version of what Jim Parsons is, in that you can’t imagine anyone else playing this character once you see him.
That’s certainly how we feel. I mean, he was really the only choice to be considered. We saw his audition for some sides that Chuck and I wrote, and it was shot, I think, by his mom on an iPhone, in his grandmother’s living room. He just made us laugh. You can see that he understood what he was saying. He’s a bright, polite, special kid. He’s come a long way, and he’s really bonded with Jim. I think Jim has really helped him dial in to his inner Sheldon. It’s been amazing to watch.

Iain Armitage and Jim Parsons (Photo: Trae Patton/CBS)

What will the tone of Young Sheldon be going forward? Will it be similar to the pilot?
It is sweet, and heartfelt, and a little serious. I mean, you can kind of imagine where there will be some situations that arise that are pretty serious. I think eventually we’d like to tap into all that. I think moving forward from the pilot, we’ll probably aim a little bit more toward the comedy side, and hopefully maintain just as much heart. Get our legs under us, and then, over time, I think start to look at slightly more serious episodes here and there, but we’re not really working from a formula. We’re just feeling our way through it, and doing what feels right to us.

Armitage and Perry (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

Back to the cast, Zoe Perry is perfect as Mary, and she, obviously, looks and sounds a lot like her mother (Laurie Metcalf, who plays Mary on TBBT). That’s a fun and also emotional connection between the two series.
Yeah, and it doesn’t feel like she’s doing an impersonation of her mom. It’s just genetic. It just comes out.

We’re also getting, even in the pilot, hints that the family has money problems. We know the situation with George and his job. You can see how all of that would eventually turn into some of the problems that we know, from adult Sheldon, his parents have in their marriage. I think it makes The Big Bang Theory timeline Mary even more endearing, because you get this inkling of what she’s gone through, and that she’s this sarcastic and funny, but also incredibly optimistic woman.
And she’s fiercely protective of her Shelly. At times to a fault.

We’re going to meet Meemaw in this timeline. Is she going to be a pretty big part of their family life?
She will be. And she’s played by Annie Potts, and boy is she great. She is a gift. She is an incredible actress, and deeply funny. That’s another beautiful relationship that we get to see a better window into, and it’s really something special to see Meemaw and her Moonpie.

Do we meet her fairly quickly?
By the second episode, yes.

What are you most excited for people to see when the rest of the season unfolds? What are you most excited for The Big Bang Theory fans specifically to see with this show?
I just hope The Big Bang Theory fans are okay with what we’ve done here and enjoy it. It’s a different tone. It’s a different version of Sheldon. What I really enjoy is it’s not simply words that adult Sheldon would say put in a nine-year-old’s mouth. I think there’s an optimism, and an innocence to nine-year-old Sheldon that isn’t quite so upfront with adult Sheldon. On the writing side, that’s been really enjoyable to tap into. Those moments where… like, in front of the high school, when Mary says, “Look around, nobody else is wearing a bow tie,” and he says, “Well, perhaps I’ll start a fad.” That’s just a beautiful optimism that I really like about this character.

In terms of the two timelines, TBBT and Young Sheldon, how much do you focus on keeping them consistent, not contradicting each other?
We’re absolutely doing our best to honor The Big Bang Theory timeline as much as possible. I don’t think we really messed with it too much, but yeah, we’re aware of it, and it’s something we think about. If we think we may have created a wrinkle in time, we’re working on ways to smooth that wrinkle out, possibly on the other side, on The Big Bang Theory. It just hasn’t happened yet. Something could happen on Young Sheldon now, and you’re like, “Well, how come we never heard about that on The Big Bang Theory?” And that doesn’t mean that we won’t, because now we have this weird chance to jump back and forth in time and create little moments like that, which seems like an exciting opportunity.

Young Sheldon officially premieres Nov. 2 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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