NBC has a lot of hope riding on their new melodrama, This Is Us. Featuring a cast of recognizable talents (Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, newly minted Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, among others), the trailer for the series that debuted during the upfronts was the most watched of the upfront season. The series, heavily promoted over the summer, came in with a tremendous amount of buzz. It was a good trailer, too, featuring one of those pansy white boy ballads and a lot of preciously written wisdom and more than a couple of tear-jerky moments.
The pilot for This Is Us lives up to the trailer, and if you’re into Hallmarkian sentimentality and conventional family drama plotlines with a heavy dose of poignancy, This Is Us works modestly well for what it is: A pathos-heavy version of Parenthood.
And then comes the twist, and it’s good one. The question, however, is whether the series can sustain itself beyond the twist?
This is Us tells the story of four seemingly disparate people who all share the same birthday. There’s Jack (Ventimiglia), whose wife (Moore) is pregnant with triplets and goes into labor six weeks early. There’s also Kate (Chrissy Metz), a member of Overeaters Anonymous who is depressed because she can’t stay on her diet. She has a supportive twin brother in Kevin (Justin Hartley), who is just the opposite: He’s chiseled as hell, but he hates his job starring in a bad laugh-track sitcom as The Manny where he’s asked to appear shirtless in every scene. Then there’s Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who hires a private investigator to track down the crack-addicted father who abandoned him as an infant at a fire station.
Each of the characters hits a low point in the episode. Kate falls off her scales and sprains her ankle. Kevin has a meltdown on the set of his TV series and quits. Randall tracks down his father, but just as he’s beginning to connect, learns that his estranged Dad is dying. Meanwhile, Jack’s wife Rebecca loses one of her three babies, which prompts the episode’s best sequence, a tender, heartbreaking speech to Jack from the obstetrician played by Gerald McRaney who delivered the stillborn baby.
It’s a schmaltzy speech delivered with typical McRaney folksiness, but it’s a good speech, and it ultimately inspires Jack to adopt a third child, who it turns out is Randall, now the adopted brother of twins Kate and Kevin.
It’s similar to the reveal in the pilot episode of Modern Family — where we find out how all of the characters are connected — except there’s the added twist here that Jack’s storyline is set in 1980. It duped me, and probably everyone else watching (because who expects a twist in a family drama?) and it retroactively strengthened the storylines leading up to the reveal.
It was clever, but it still doesn’t answer how well the series maintains the twist going ahead. I suspect that three siblings — now grown up — will go through an ordeal each week and at the end of every episode, we’ll find out the poignant moment in their past that helped them through the ordeal. I am going to be a sucker for that every single time, because I am a weak, sentimental man. Colder hearts, however, may find the entire experience too icky and contrived to withstand, and that is an acceptable reaction.
This is Us comes from Glenn Ficarra and Dan Fogelman, whose Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone film Crazy, Stupid, Love. contained a similar and surprising twist (minus the time element), and the writing here is as equally endearing or off-putting, depending on your threshold for the warm and fuzzy. The twist, however, is not a reason to invest in the series. In fact, a review hardly even seems necessary: Twenty seconds into the trailer for This Is Us and you’ll immediately know whether you’re the type of person who will like it or hate it. Either response is perfectly valid.