In the past few weeks, “Young Sheldon” continued to swim in its little tank of bland storylines. Meanwhile, “Modern Family” pivoted toward strong character development, choosing to end its penultimate season with a bang rather than a televised whimper.
For the past few weeks, there haven’t been many manifestations of the uptick in comedic energy emblemized by most of season nine. There were some good moments — “Daddy Issues’’ is somewhat bolstered by a classic Phil-and-Claire (Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen) mess-around (high-five for noticing the “New Girl” reference), and “Mother!” boasts an entire arc exploring Phil’s acting turn as a sheriff.
But “The Escape” is bogged down by the sheer amount of unlikability it chooses to bring out in its main ensemble. Even the season finale has nothing new to offer as far as laugh-out-loud storylines go. Instead, it is distinguished by a final few minutes that signal new directions for the Dunphy and Pritchett children in season 10.
It is the strong character development that provides the highlights of these last few episodes rather than the obvious and well-trodden humor. In particular, Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter), Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Jay (Ed O’Neill) benefit from an increased focus in their individual storylines.
Haley starts to get some traction in both her professional life at the Gwyneth Paltrow-inspired company Goop and in her relationship with the eccentric Arvin (Chris Geere). Manny’s college life becomes the source of a hilarious horror short film that he develops with Jay for an assignment. His trepidation about a cross-country road trip he plans to take in the season finale also creates a ripple effect that makes its way to Haley and Alex.
Haley acting as Manny’s older sibling and encouraging him to face his fear of isolation is a side of her we haven’t really seen before. Going by how well she can pull off the Yoda act, this side needs to be explored a little bit more in the final season.
Alex’s insistence on going on the road trip with Manny betrays her inward hesitation to spend one summer in which she doesn’t have to do anything. In the past, “Modern Family” has not shied away from teasing out the anxiety and the all-encompassing competitiveness that Alex experiences. Choosing to portray her doubts over spending a relaxing summer, then, is a continuation of her struggles to overcome her stressful tendencies.
Hopefully in season 10, Alex can get to a place where she can be at peace with herself and actually let her hair down a little.
Meanwhile, Mitchell finally embraces his inner fanboy, and Jay decides to venture into a professional world that he knows next to nothing about — providing the other character-based highlights of the season finale.
Looking ahead, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch’s decision to take care of baby Cal (Dylan Bay Kleckner) while Cam’s sister is in prison should add a welcome dose of comedic spark to the duo’s joint arc in season 10.
Overall, the penultimate season of “Modern Family” successfully revitalized the show. Most of the characters were given their due; the writing managed to reignite the spark that had been absent from the past two seasons.
If “Modern Family” can continue this welcome resurgence into its final season, then it will become one of the few long-running comedies that has regained its footing at the end instead of limply wobbling to the finish line.
Alas, the final six episodes of “Young Sheldon” take no strides to redeem the worst impulses of its largely frustrating and lazily written first season. The story arcs are still padded to an insufferable degree, the talented cast is still not given the material that it deserves, and somehow, the 19-to-20-minute episodes always seem long. Really, really long.
It is one thing to watch a show so downright horrible across each and every department of production that it is a wonder why it exists in the first place. It is another to watch an ensemble waste its talents on stories that continuously err on the side of banality instead of thought-out character work.
The “good old days” of “Young Sheldon” lasted for less than a full season before being swallowed by a vortex of unoriginality. The last three episodes devote a majority of their screen times to an initially promising but ultimately exhausting romantic arc between Sheldon’s Meemaw Connie (Annie Potts) and his pen pal-turned-friend, Dr. Sturgis (Wallace Shawn).
It’s easy to excuse Sheldon’s (Iain Armitage) continuous meddling in their nascent relationship as a signpost of the character’s obsessiveness. One can also forgive the writing choice to put Connie — a character who has traditionally worked best in small doses — front and center. Maybe all of the added screen time could have helped viewers empathize through an added dimensionality to her personality.
And sure, a bittersweet monologue in season one’s finale about Connie’s struggles after her husband’s untimely demise does signal a hidden sadness behind her mask of sardonic quips. But the path to get to that little nugget of character development is overlong, overdone and just plain boring.
Connie’s hesitation about Sturgis and her ensuing dilemma regarding whether to remain exclusive with him are sitcom tropes that have been done to death. The final nail in the coffin for the conventional turns of their courtship comes in the form of a tiresome love triangle that dominates most of the season finale.
One can’t help but wonder if the time devoted to establishing Dr. Sturgis as another member of the ensemble could have been better spent fleshing out the characters who have been a part of the show since the beginning.
Take Georgie (Montana Jordan), for instance. All season long, he was nothing more than the thickheaded older brother. “Gluons, Guacamole, and the Color Purple” signaled a change on that front, actually giving him something to do instead of making him the victim of the show’s most clichéd gags. His desire to help Missy (Raegan Revord) with her homework and the pride he exhibited after she received an A on her assignment provided some of the more tender moments of “Young Sheldon.”
It’s a shame, then, that the character reverted back to his stereotypical persona in the episodes that followed so that the show could focus more on the disappointing trio of Connie, Sturgis and Sheldon.
George Sr.’s (Lance Barber) dinner date with Missy is another example of an arc that deserved more attention. George showing his daughter how to cut up and eat lobster is one of those “aww” sequences that “Young Sheldon” can flawlessly pull off when it tries just a little.
Making some effort, however, is not something that “Young Sheldon” likes doing. The greatest fault of this freshman season is its perpetual desire to stretch out a plot that doesn’t have a lot of meat to begin with. Because the show spends its time on mediocre stories with gleeful abandon, it sacrifices the genuinely tender side plots that deserve to be better fleshed out.
Ultimately, underwhelmed is the feeling that one is most left with after watching any episode of “Young Sheldon.” The show could be much more, but it actively chooses not to try.
Maybe that changes. But right now, this tiresome first season doesn’t have a lot to write home about.