'This Is Us': TV Review
Strong performances carry Dan Fogelman's NBC ensemble dramedy.
While family comedies are a TV gold standard, especially if you happen to be watching ABC, it's remarkably hard to do a TV show that's "just" a family drama.
Even though traditional and nontraditional family units are universally relatable and, as anybody with a family knows, oozing with opportunities for a buffet of emotional options, networks prefer to do family shows that look a lot like police procedurals (Blue Bloods) or where a literal family is wrapped in a more TV-accessible metaphorical family (Friday Night Lights) or nestled at the heart of a more commercial genre (ABC's upcoming Designated Survivor comes to mind), but even those are relative rarities. It seems like for every pure network TV family drama, a Parenthood or a Brothers & Sisters, we get a show about lottery winners who aren't actually a family but become family when they discover that being rich isn't so awesome and then become canceled when networks discover nobody wants to watch a show about lottery winners.
Premiering Tuesday, NBC's This Is Us also isn't exactly a family drama. It's an interconnected-people-with-commonalities drama, specifically a show about a group of folks who share the same birthday, but not in a spooky, thriller way in which it turns out that only seven people born on March 3 can stop the coming apocalypse when they join forces on the road to Shreveport.
The interconnected individuals in This Is Us don't have superpowers (a third of the potential audience stops reading), they don't fight or investigate crimes (another third of the potential audience stops reading) and they aren't even in Chicago (NBC's entire audience looks around in confusion). They're fairly normal people living fairly normal lives, mostly with a Nancy Meyers level of privilege, which is probably why creator Dan Fogelman has built This Is Us as a bit of an interlocking riddle, with reveals and a twist ending. For me, the narrative trickery at work in the show is an unnecessary distraction and, in some ways, a straight-up cheat, but that's a topic for a different essay after the series premieres. If its structure gives audiences something to latch onto, a reason to stick around for a pilot that's full of heart, humor and great performances, that'll be fine, though I wish NBC could just let the Parenthood audience know that there's a new series to make them sob every week.
The biggest unifying "incident" in the promising pilot is a birthday that contributes to an eventful day for our main characters. Adorable marrieds Jack (Milo Ventimiglia, introduced butt-first and launching the upfronts trailer into the realm of viral sensation) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) are observing their traditional rites for Jack's birthday when Rebecca goes into labor with triplets. Successful businessman Randall (Sterling K. Brown) picks the day to confront the father (Ron Cephas Jones) who abandoned him at birth. TV star Kevin (Justin Hartley) uses his 36th birthday to ponder the state of his career, specifically his vapid comedy The Manny, while also helping coach his twin sister Kate (Chrissy Metz) through a difficult day confronting her own failings as she heads into her mid-30s.
The This Is Us pilot was directed by Fogelman's Crazy, Stupid, Love collaborators Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and shares a lot of DNA with that film. Each storyline starts out autonomous and functions as its own mini-genre piece. There's high medical drama with Jack and Rebecca, featuring Gerald McRaney as as a kindly-but-no-nonsense doctor. There's Hollywood satire with the behind-the-scenes antics from Kevin's sitcom, including a Very Special Guest Star. Kate's day starts sad, but becomes a rom-com (basically the pilot of Mike & Molly) when she meets a guy (Chris Sullivan) at an eating-issues support group. Just as in Crazy, Stupid, Love, the game becomes figuring out how and when the characters are going to intersect.
It's not a game that's without fun, but it's also not a game that's sustainable long-term, which makes the twistiness of the pilot a ruse or a bait-and-switch. Either the stories and characters are going to sustain themselves or they aren't, but you shouldn't be expecting to tune in each week just to find out if the woman from Story A is going to unexpectedly turn out to be the child from Story B's orthodontist or something. The conceit is actually more like CBS' Life in Pieces only in drama form, and, as is the case on Life in Pieces, the individual stories can sometimes feel slight or cliché-laden, and, as is the case on Life in Pieces, the cast carries the day.
In the story with the pilot's highest stakes, Moore and Ventimiglia immediately establish a very sweet and funny chemistry, but they also both deliver the set-jawed intensity necessary for their hospital scenes, boosted by a performance by McRaney that includes hard-edged gruffness, humor and several terrific monologues. (McRaney is so great, despite so little screen time, that it was a huge pleasure to hear that he'll be back in later episodes.) Brown, unrecognizable in demeanor from his Emmy-nominated People v. O.J. Simpson turn, confirms his star-worthiness, playing well opposite both onscreen wife Susan Kelechi Watson and Jones, a ubiquitous character actor whose name I've learned this fall and which you should learn as well. I also liked Smallville and The Young and the Restless veteran Justin Hartley, playing against his Ken doll image and displaying a solid comic touch.
It's in no way Metz's fault that her storyline is the pilot's weakest. She's convincing and compassionate in a character who gets initially overdefined by her weight in frustratingly stereotypical ways and then gets thrust into a budding romance with Toby, a character whose caustic introduction played much less endearingly for me than it was supposed to. If Kate is able to function in stories that aren't just about avoiding eating and falling off of scales, I'm confident Metz will shine, but that's the struggle of reviewing network shows off of the pilot only.
With This Is Us and the various reveals and connections that are spelled out in the final 10 minutes, that reviewing challenge is even greater. A lot of the pilot's emotion is sold as it comes together in a way I doubt future episodes will aspire to. Or maybe they will? Fogelman's pilot introduces the pieces necessary to become a show that will make viewers laugh and cry and also relish the performances from Brown, Ventimiglia, Moore, Hartley, Metz and the rest, but it will need to settle into its identity.
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Kelechi Watson, Ron Cephas Jones
Creator: Dan Fogelman
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)