One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Depending on your capacity for saccharine sappiness, NBC’s new family drama This Is Us will either completely gut you, or lose you in an overabundance of self-pitying monologues – “how did I get here?” appears to be the show’s thesis statement – and cloying sentimentality. There’s a risk to introducing such deeply rich emotional stakes into a show so early on, and This Is Us only comes out with a handful of rewards for taking it.
That being said, the show is also maybe one of the most immediately promising so far this fall season. Creator Dan Fogelman proves his knack for twisty, interconnected stories, and while the meat of the first hour can feel choppy and inconsistent, his full-eyed vision for a long-form version of Crazy, Stupid, Love (which he wrote) comes into crisp vision by pilot’s end. There’s hope for This Is Us. Is it NBC’s next Parenthood-level hit, like the advertising is angling it as? Not now, maybe not ever. But it could grow into its own weird, affecting contemplation on the intricacies – and intimacies – that only close-knit families know, and that’s not something to scoff at.
The pilot has a lot to get to, so the opening scene is set up as a round robin glimpse into the lives of its characters, following an opening title card with the show’s main hook: each one of the main characters share the same birthday. According to Wikipedia (and This Is Us), 18 million people share a similar date of birth, but there’s no evidence that these people have any kind of behavioral or emotional connection in common. “If there is, Wikipedia hasn’t discovered it for us yet,” the show pithily states before opening on a completely nude Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) prepping for a birthday strip tease from his pregnant-with-triplets wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore).
At the same time, an overweight woman named Kate (Chrissy Metz) stumbles when weighing herself on a scale, a business-focused man named Randall (Sterling K. Brown) endures an over-the-top birthday party from his colleagues, and a fed-up actor named Kevin (Justin Hartley) contemplates his place on America’s favorite terrible sitcom “The Man-ny.” Each glimpse is fleeting, but Fogelman drops moments and lines that make each character stand out – Kevin has a mental breakdown monologue about crappy multi-camera sitcoms that’s probably the edgiest, and funniest, This Is Us ever gets – but some are shortchanged in the shuffle.
Most of the pilot’s focus is on Jack and Rebecca’s rush to the hospital, and the emotions surrounding all of the stories here are really anchored in whether or not Rebecca and her three children will make it out of the hospital together. Big speeches are given (“I bought three cribs,” Jack pointedly informs the doctor when asked about whose life to give preference to) and tragedies inevitably occur, but Ventimiglia and Moore have off-the-bat chemistry in that opening scene, and it helps prop up even the more manipulative aspects of the show’s script. Not to mention excuse a particularly on-the-nose collection of folksy indie ballads slowly buffeting throughout the episode.
Kate and Kevin take up the other chunk of the hour, followed by Randall. Kate has maybe one of the more refreshing stories of the fall season: she’s part of a weight loss support group and is determined to stop pitying herself, but she’s still confident enough to mull over a date with fellow overeater Toby (Chris Sullivan) and has a particularly winsome, surprisingly close relationship with pretty boy Kevin. Metz is instantly endearing, as is her plight, and Hartley helps craft a story that humorously counterbalances hers: he doesn’t want to be the dunderheaded sex symbol that his network desperately needs him to be, but he genuinely doesn’t know how to stop it from happening.
Such small potatoes problems might make some turn away from This Is Us and its various first-world problems (Kate literally dumps dog poo on a trash can full of perfectly edible snack foods), but Fogelman finds ways to eke out stakes in most of the stories. I say most because Randall’s search for his long-lost father is probably the least interesting section of This Is Us so far, although Brown infuses Randall with some believably ping-ponging neuroses after he brings his dad home to meet the family. It just doesn’t have the weight and on-the-brink tragedy afforded to the other, better parts of This Is Us.
All of these plots jump from one to another with an economical rhythm that sometimes betrays the show’s more adept emotions. I connected more and more with Jack and Rebecca’s triumphantly gloomy hospital visit, but every shift over to Randall or Kevin or Kate had the potential to grate otherwise impactful scenes. One particularly well-written moment between Rebecca and her new, last-minute doctor (Gerald McRaney) captures the essence of what I assume is the entire purpose of This Is Us: it’s sad, emotionally gratifying, but sweetly funny. Unfortunately, it’s also cut short by a subsequent scene set in the live audience of Kevin’s sitcom where a crowd vamper cracks a Jewish joke.
That choppiness makes it too easy to remove yourself from the emotional core of This Is Us, but by the end of the pilot I was convinced wholeheartedly to stick around and find out what Fogelman has planned down the line for these characters. As far as pilots go, it’s not instantly engaging or worthy of praise higher than the somewhat tampered one I’m giving it now, but it is uniquely clever with much more going on under its surface than first glances allow. Whether that’s by Fogelman’s design as a way to further cement the show’s we-are-all-connected mysticism, I’m not sure, but as someone who eventually found himself utterly decimated by the Braverman clan (who, admittedly, had their own rocky beginning), I can say that there’s at least a glint of cut-to-black potential pocketed away within This Is Us. Whether the show lives up to that or not is something not even Wikipedia knows.
Sometimes cloying, sometimes moving, and - by the end of the pilot - deceptively clever, This Is Us might be too sappy for some, but anyone who succumbs to its emotional wavelengths will likely be satisfied.