Finally, a new show to make us ugly cry.
Like many others, from the first time I saw the preview for This Is Us, I knew I was all in. From a bearded Milo Ventimiglia (Gilmore Girls) to the return of Mandy Moore (Tangled, A Walk to Remember and “I Wanna Be With You,” for those of you who didn’t grow up in the ‘90s), the show seemed to capitalize on just the right familiar faces needed to pull in viewers, without spending a ton of money. And then there was the obvious callback to NBC’s well-performing previous drama, Parenthood. The drama and familiarity were so obvious, in fact, that it was truly shocking to learn that This Is Us was not brought to us by Jason Katims (Parenthood and Friday Night Lights), but by Dan Fogelman. Add in that the characters are connected by the fact that they’re all celebrating their 36th birthday (and a final twist at the end) and the whole thing seemed right out of Love Actually. Everything about the show felt familiar… even if the over-the-top drama often seemed, well, over the top.
First there was Jack (Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Moore)—a husband and wife that are madly in love and having a baby. Everything immediately spirals out of control when a very naked Jack learns that his wife is going into labor… on his 36th birthday. The madness continues when we find out the gorgeous young couple is expecting triplets, and then, Rebecca’s OBGYN is in the middle of emergency surgery and so she comes face to face with a new doctor. Obviously, there have to be complications, but everything about this storyline was so contrived it made me want to hate it—but, then again, everything about this storyline made me sob. And I sobbed hard.
The drama spiral continued with Randall’s story, though this one was slightly more self-aware. Randall (Sterling K. Brown, fresh off his Emmy win for The People v. O.J. Simpson), also celebrating his 36th birthday, has just learned the identity of his long-lost father. Brown is brilliant in his timing, wit and ability to be both lovable and uptight. It’s quite possible that Brown is the only reason Randall is believable (he was abandoned at a fire station, after all) and worthy of our attachment. And ultimately, there are aspects of his storyline that are entirely believable—my own mom, for example, has often spoken of searching for her biological mother.
Twins Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) seem to have the most believable and relatable story lines. The only thing unbelievable about them is just how absolutely trite they are. On the one hand, I desperately want to love and root for Kate. It’s so great to see a plus sized woman in a leading role, who isn’t just there to be the butt of jokes. On the flip side, Metz is still there to be “the fat girl.” So far, Kate’s only personality attribute is that she’s self-loathing. You know because she’s fat. Her foil is Kevin. He’s just landed his first real acting gig, but he’s having a hard time not hating himself for it because he feels like he only got the job because he looks good with his shirt off. It has “#PrettyPeopleProblems” written all over it. While anyone in Kate’s shoes would find his problem worth nothing more than a scoff, it’s still easy enough to understand him. His dream was to be an actor. He’s acting in a massive hit, so he should be happy. But, he’s not. Taking off your shirt and holding a baby for the camera isn’t exactly fulfilling. It’s the television equivalent of spending your whole life telling everyone you’re going to be a writer and then waking up to realize you’re writing about the Kardashians. Again. I hear it’s soul crushing. (JK. I know it is.)
Words like “unbelievable” and “trite” might paint a picture of a show not worthy of your time, but I urge you to reconsider. In the end, life really is a mix of unfathomably stressful moments and mind-bogglingly routine days. Fogelman is clearly onto something here. Either that, or he’s got an amazing partnership with Kleenex.
Of course, there is that final twist. By holding back significantly on set and costume design in the scenes revolving around Jack and Rebecca, we’re able to go nearly the entire episode before realizing that Jack isn’t celebrating his 36th birthday in the same year as the other three. Jack’s birthday happened 36 years earlier, on the day his twins (they lose one baby), Kate and Kevin were born. And when a helpless, abandoned baby becomes parentless, he takes up the third spot in Jack and Rebecca’s life together. I’m not a fan of such elaborate plot twists and tricks, but This Is Us still has all the makings of a successful drama—even if it’s difficult to imagine where they could possibly go from here.