This Is Us: A heartfelt family drama that never fails to charm (TV review)


Call me a cynic, but there is very little on television these days that gets me emotional. I watch shows to laugh (Brooklyn Nine Nine), to feel exhilarated (Game of Thrones), or to think (Black Mirror). Maybe it’s a natural byproduct of getting older, but its rare for television to tug at the emotions controlling my tear ducts. It’s not that networks don’t try and create emotional dramas. But rather that most dramas are so ham-fisted and obvious, that I can see the “cry moments” coming a mile away. It’s as if shows are cribbing from the same emotional playbook of sick child x abusive parent + heartfelt monologue = tears. These shows aren’t dramatic. They’re melodramatic. I approached This Is Us, NBC’s new dramedy series about a group of thirtysomethings at various life stages with that same skepticism. And at about a quarter way into its freshman season, I will freely admit that it’s gotten dusty more than a few times in my living room while watching this phenomenal show.

This Is Us introduces us to five main characters: Kate (Chrissy Metz), an overweight personal assistant, Kevin (Justin Hartley), a mid-level movie star that is currently starring in a mid-level TV show, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) a high powered commodities trader, and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) a married couple pregnant with triplets. The pilot jumps back and forth between their storylines, as we slowly uncover why we should care about these five seemingly unrelated individuals. Kate struggles with how to cope with her weight, joining an overeaters support group. Kevin begins to question his choice in profession as his network sitcom, The Manny, brings in solid ratings by simply showcasing his statuesque physique and himbo persona. Adopted Randall has just received word that the private eye he hired has located his birth father. And Jack and Rebecca are headed to the hospital to give birth to their triplets.

Yet in spite of these seemingly disconnected stories, us savvy TV viewers know that there must be a through line that ties all these disparate characters together. This is slowly revealed to us as the pilot progresses. “Oh, Kate and Kevin are twin siblings! Oh, Randall is their adopted African-American brother!” But what about new parents Jack and Rebecca? In the pilot’s surprise twist <SPOILER ALERT>, we discover that the couple lost one of their children during childbirth, and they decide to adopt the black baby that was left at a fire station that same day. Putting two and…one together, we come to the realization that, “These are two separate timelines!” In a feat of narrative gymnastics that would make the creators of Lost proud, the show reveals that the five characters are in fact, father, mother, and three children. Future episodes jump back and forth between the past when Jack and Rebecca are raising their three children, to the present where these same children are trying to navigate their modern day lives.

Although the pessimist could chalk this up as a needless plot contrivance, this storytelling device ends up being an integral part of the show. In much the same way that Lost slowly added layers of complexity to its myriad castaways, This Is Us meticulously reveals aspects of each of its main characters, giving us glimpses of how their childhood drove the motivations that they have today. Subsequent episodes jump back and forth through the family’s timeline, showing Jack and Rebecca before they had kids, when the kids were babies, and when they are adolescents. It’s an inspired way for us to get to know the characters that we will no doubt be following for the remainder of the show. It also opens the door for little mysteries that the show will have to explain down the line. A prime example is in the second episode when “mom and dad” visit Randall’s house. Randall opens the door to see Rebecca (a heavily prostheticized Moore) and <spit take> Jack’s best friend? What happened to Jack? Did they get divorced? Is he still alive? These are the sorts of jaw-dropping moments that provide the occasional narrative kick.

But ultimately, plot twists aside, this show is not simply about narrative head fakes and gotcha moments. It’s about the very real, and very heartfelt moments between brother and sister, husband and wife, parent and child. This family is pretty far from the nuclear ideal, and yet, somehow they come together as a unit to support each other when it matters. The show grounds its emotional stakes into stories that are real and relatable, with dramatic payoffs that feels earned, rather than focus grouped.

Watching This Is Us is probably the most pleasurable television viewing experience I’ve had in a long time. Because as fun as it is sometimes to watch red weddings and bastard bowls, there’s something genuinely pleasing about seeing the everyday struggles and successes of a family that you feel like you’ve known for decades.

Rating: 5/5 Atoms

NR 5 Atoms - A

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