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Iain Armitage, 9, tells USA TODAY’s Bill Keveney what it’s like to play the lead character in ‘Young Sheldon,’ and Zoe Perry and Lance Barber, who play his parents, talk about the young actor’s capabilities.
Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

Young Sheldon is not The Big Bang Theory.

That’s the first takeaway from the premiere episode of the new CBS sitcom (Monday 8:30 ET/PT,  moving to Thursdays 8:30 ET/PT Nov. 2, *** out of four). Created by Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro, the family comedy jumps back to 1989 as it follows a pre-pubescent Sheldon Cooper (Iain Armitage), a child prodigy in a small Texas town attending high school at age nine.

Young Sheldon and Big Bang share a history, and a star (Big Bang‘s Jim Parsons steps in for some Wonder Years-style narration as the modern-day Sheldon), but little else. The spinoff is a single-camera sitcom without a studio audience. It also has a tone that leans far more sentimental and is focused on family, not friendships.

More: ‘Young Sheldon’ kids around with boy version of ‘Big Bang Theory’ genius

The changes in style and format may be jarring to regular Big Bang viewers, who might be surprised to find Sheldon isn’t a pint-size version of TV’s top comedy. But Sheldon deserves credit for not forcing the Big Bang model onto a series where it wouldn’t fit. The sitcom has a chance to lure in new viewers, who are put off by Big Bang’s aggressive studio audience laughter or joke style. The end result is a series with fewer “Bazingas” and more heart, which works just fine, at least in the early going.  

Young Sheldon gets most of its humor from the juxtaposition of its abrasive child genius and a conservative small town with residents who don’t  understand or (at times) want to deal with him. The action kicks off with Sheldon starting high school, an attempt by his parents to place him in an environment more suited to him. Of course, the catch is that he doesn’t really belong anywhere, and the show mines comedy from Sheldon’s clashes with teachers and students.

Armitage, who was a standout in HBO’s Big Little Lies earlier this year, is a remarkably articulate and engaging young actor. Had the producers not been able to find someone nearly…