This Is Us is being hailed as the only breakout hit for the networks of the 2016 fall TV season. It’s been nominated for three Golden Globes – Best Drama, and Mandy More and Chrissy Metz, for Best Supporting Actress. So one rainy afternoon, I decided to watch the first episode using my cable service’s on demand feature. Three hours later, I had to turn off the TV, but returned over the next few days to take in all 10 episodes. It’s that addictive.
The show will be on hiatus until January 10 when it returns to tell us whether one of the show’s popular characters will be killed off. You have time to catch up before those new episodes air.
This Is Us is quality TV, something all too rare on the networks these days when reboots (MacGyver, Lethal Weapon), super heroes (Supergirl, Marvel’s Angents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and sci-fi fantasies (Timeless, Genius) dominate. Shows about families often are comedies, like Modern Families. Or they veer into melodrama. This Is Us manages to introduce issues faced by many families without delivering lectures. We’re left to figure it out for ourselves after watching another family confront its challenges.
The performances are some of the best we’ve seen this season, even taking in shows on HBO and Netflix. But it’s the writing that takes This Is Us to another level. Series creator and writer, Dan Fogelman, centers the story on the Pearson family, father Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia, and Rebecca, played by More (and yes, she does get to sing in some of the episodes.) In the pilot, Jack is celebrating his 36th birthday when Rebecca goes into labor. She’s pregnant with triplets, but only two of the babies – a boy, Kevin, and a girl, Kate – will survive. Gerald McRaney plays the wise doctor who helps the couple handle both the joy and sorrow of the delivery.
Through a twist of fate, Jack and Rebecca will go home with three babies. An African-American baby boy is in the nursery, having been left at a fire station. Jack is drawn to the baby and Rebecca agrees they should adopt him. Yet what seems like an obvious solution, can’t help but create future complications. Rebecca still grieves for Kyle, the baby she lost, and has difficulty bonding with Randall, the baby she has. When she does, however, Randall quickly becomes her favorite, something her other son, Kevin, can’t help but notice.
The “twins,” Kate and Kevin, have always been close. Kate claims to feel pain when Kevin does. Randall, on the other hand, has struggled to fit in with his siblings. As adults, all three children have “issues,” and with flashbacks we begin to understand how these challenges have come to define them as adults. Randall, who as a young child was found to be gifted, is a successful trader, married with two little girls. While he loves his adoptive parents, he’s constantly searching for his birthparents. Although Kevin is a famous TV actor (he plays “The Manny,” an au pair in a sitcom), he hates the show and feels like a failure. And Kate constantly struggles with her weight.
There is no one “star,” but an ensemble where even the minor characters leave an impression. Ventimiglia and More make for a believable couple, warts and all. Fogelman takes us back to their courtship in Pittsburgh. While watching the Steelers in the Superbowl, they argue about having children. (That becomes a moot point when the triplets are conceived in a bathroom during the game.) The adult children are played by an appealing trio: the nominated Metz (My Name Is Earl, American Horror Story – Freak Show); Justin Hartley (The Young and the Restless, Revenge); and Sterling K. Brown (nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story).
Fogelman’s test will come with the new season. Will he be able to keep up the momentum the series has created? There are still many family secrets to be revealed. Expectations will be high.
Top photo from Bigstock: “This is Us” Cast at the PaleyFest 2016 Fall TV Preview – NBC at the Paley Center For Media on September 13, 2016 in Beverly Hills, CA. From left: Chrissy Metz, Mandy More, Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown, and Milo Ventimiglia.