Monday brings to broadcast television two series about socially awkward, misfit young geniuses — characters “on the spectrum,” in the now much-used phrase, though only one is identified outright as such.
ABC’s “The Good Doctor” makes it specific: Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) is a surgical resident freshly arrived at a San Jose hospital, with autism and savant syndrome. Sheldon Cooper, the character played by Jim Parsons on “The Big Bang Theory,” whose early years are the subject of the new “Young Sheldon” on CBS, is never diagnosed, in either show, but he fits the profile, at least as popular culture understands it.
Getting a sneak premiere this week — the show takes up its regular post Nov. 2 — “Young Sheldon” follows the parent show’s 11th season debut, 10 years and a day after it first aired.
Though many details of the setting and characters were established in “The Big Bang Theory,” familiarity with that series is not required to understand or like the spin-off. Shot single-camera style, unlike its hectic, filmed-live progenitor, it has its own gentler, more naturalistic rhythms and pleasures.
Chief among these is Iain Armitage as Sheldon, charming and believable and just suggestive enough of Parsons. Brainy and rule-bound — he is still in the classical physics phase of life, not yet in the quantum — his Sheldon is unusual but not unnatural, and because he is also very much a little boy, less trying than the adult sitcom character he will grow up to be. The writing does not push the character’s quirks too deep into cuteness — just up to the shins, maybe just the ankles.
Created by “Big Bang” co-creator Chuck Lorre and series stalwart Steven Molaro, the show is in some respects a fanciful Hollywood screenwriter’s view of 1989 East Texas. Dad’s a football coach. Dinner table talk concerns Tater Tots and who’ll go to church with Mom on Sunday. (Sheldon will. “You don’t believe in God,” says twin sister Missy, played by Raegan Revord. “Nope,” Sheldon replies, “but I believe in Mom… Sure, she thinks the Earth was made in six days, but that’s because she’s gullible, not a liar.”)
Armitage is especially good with Zoe Perry, as Sheldon’s mother, Mary— a role played by Perry’s own mother, Laurie Metcalf, on “Big Bang” — who doesn’t wholly understand her son, but loves him the best, and with Revord, who annoys him most. But Lance Barber as his father and Montana Jordan as his older brother (and now classmate) do sympathetic work as well. Somewhere over the horizon, Annie Potts waits as Sheldon’s grandmother.
As different a show as this is, one would not expect “Big Bang” fans to follow as a body to “Young Sheldon,” even though the Parsons is in it, sort of — a voice narrating retrospectively from the future, like Daniel Stern in “The Wonder Years” (a show “Young Sheldon” somewhat resembles, were Kevin Arnold entering high school at 9). If anything, the pilot makes a little too much use of him, unnecessarily coloring the gentler new comedy with some of the earlier one’s sharper tone. But it’s a small bump in a trip worth making.
Developed by David Shore (“House”) and actor Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii 5-0”) from a South Korean series a friend assures me is excellent, “The Good Doctor” comes on a bit strong. (Director Seth Gordon also worked on the Netflix autism series “Atypical,” it seems worth noting.) We are barely a minute and a half into the opening episode when the flashbacks begin and we see Young Shaun bullied for his difference. And before he is out of the San Jose airport, on his way to the job interview mentor Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) has arranged for him, he will have saved the life of a child, while the soundtrack swells with music that says, “Hero at Work.”
Not just a hero, but a superhero, really, who will be characteristically misunderstood: “He sees things and analyzes things in ways... that we can’t even begin to understand,” Dr. Glassman tells the reluctant board. (One thing he sees are pages of the textbooks he has photographically committed to memory; a special effect I can see being abandoned sooner than later.) But we know, because this show exists in the first place, that Shaun belongs there, and will do well. A series in which he proved a disaster would just be bad business. And there are successful surgeons with autism in the real world; I looked it up.
In his new job, Shaun will be surrounded by colleagues who will take care of the neuronormative plot lines and sexy stuff. You may come to love and know these people in time, if time they are afforded. But, for the barely developed moment, they mostly remind you how good-looking doctors always are on television.
Except when Shaun is in distress, Highmore plays him with a kind of bland, affectless smile, never looking anyone in the eye. Like Sheldon Cooper, he will inconveniently speak the truth because he doesn’t comprehend lying, or any other social lubricants, and he will ask the sort of questions a friendly alien might ask. He may or may not resemble any people with autism you’ve met — and we’ve all met someone with autism by now, whether we know it or not. But they call it a spectrum, because it comes in many colors.
When: 8:30 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
‘The Good Doctor’
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd