TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

this is us premiere date
Courtesy of NBC

NBC's new drama from Dan Fogelman about triplets, birthdays, and intimacy, starring Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore

It’s hard to think of another show that is more difficult to evaluate this fall based on just the pilot than NBC’s “This Is Us,” a syrupy drama about several people who share the same birthday and what they might, or might not, have in common. The initial hour ends with a reveal that sets the stage for the rest of the series, and though it’s a sweetly told little story, it’s not a great indicator of what things are going to be moving forward. The pilot is shaped primarily to deliver that twist, and unless the writers have a lot more twists up their sleeve, the weekly episodes are probably not going to be much like this first one.

The narrative follows married couple Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), siblings Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), and successful family man Randall (Sterling K. Brown). When we first meet them, Jack, Kate, Kevin and Randall are all celebrating their 36th birthdays — and going through some of the major and minor dramas of their lives. As soon as a very pregnant Rebecca gives Jack his customary birthday cupcake (and accompanying seductive dance), she goes into labor with their triplets. Randall, meanwhile, is surprised with a cake by a cadre of employees as he learns the name of his father, who abandoned him at a fire station when he was a newborn. Kate, a compulsive overeater, stares mournfully at her own birthday cake, covered with Post-It notes she’s written herself that admonish her to not eat it before its time. And Kevin, a hunky actor type, tries to hold onto his creative integrity while starring as the lead in a silly sitcom called “The Manny.”

To say more would be to reveal the central mystery of the pilot, which unfolds with careful and graceful plotting. It’s deceptively difficult to build a surprising and complete story in just 40 minutes with so many characters. Yet “This Is Us” manages to both craft an intimate series of portraits and stitch them together. The result is an episode that allows the viewer to marvel at the beauty and mystery of life — at the surprising little grace notes of fate and commonality that bind us together — while getting to know the major characters and their difficulties.

But at the same time, waves of cloying sentiment threaten to submerge everything. Creator and executive producer Dan Fogelman, who wrote the pilot, built a similar long-simmering twist into his 2011 film “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” — and in terms of tone, place and subject matter, there are commonalities between the series and the film. But “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is a movie that reaches an endpoint, while “This Is Us” is a show that aims to run for many episodes. The plotting of the premiere is very nice, but the careful structure is almost wasted amid mawkishness and hackneyed aphorisms. (A repeated line: “There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.” You don’t say.)

Especially on second viewing, the neatly written journey feels like a clever way to force-feed us schmaltz. It’s nice when a show’s emotional resonance is earned; but here, things begin to feel like gimmicky manipulation. Taking it all in from a step back, it becomes clear that the plot twist invalidates a lot of the thematic implications of the first two acts. It’s a frustrating commitment to sentiment without substance — and its success relies on viewers not thinking too hard about what they’re watching.

This is especially pronounced in the subplot involving Kate, whose weight becomes the entirety of her character’s depth and motivations. It’s a welcome deviation from the norm to see an overweight woman written as a real character, instead of treating her as a punchline — but the show, awkwardly, is nearly as uncomfortable with Kate’s weight as she is. Somehow everyone agrees that simply losing weight would be the solution to all of Kate’s problems; hopefully, that simplistic attitude won’t be the final word on her story.

For what it’s worth, Brown, Metz and Hartley deliver affecting performances in their short slivers of screen time: Brown is such a force of talent that his performance spills over the bounds of the hastily sketched Randall; Metz plays a role in which she must add a lot of presence to stillness, and she does it well; Hartley gets the thankless task of portraying the resident hunk, but he adds surprising pathos to it, flipping out part way through the pilot in a tantrum that feels more earned than any other character beat in the episode.

There is, of course, a certain appeal to schmaltz — to the unabashedly emotional drama done right — and indeed, NBC has been home to a couple of recent examples along those lines in “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights.” There’s a way in which “This Is Us” could succeed admirably. But the complexity the show grants to life, fate and the interconnectedness of humanity doesn’t seem to extend to its own world-building yet.

TV Review: 'This Is Us'

Drama, 13 episodes, 1 reviewed: NBC, Tues. Sept. 20, 10 p.m. 60 min.

Crew

Executive producers, Dan Fogelman, Donald Todd, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra, Ken Olin, Charlie Gogolak, Jess Rosenthal

Cast

Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Chris Sullivan, Susan Kelechi Watson, Ron Cephas Jones

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  1. D.L.B. says:

    I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again:
    Variety has lost ALL credibility due to the having possibly the worst TV reviewers on staff.
    This trade paper used to pride itself on objective, yet smart reviews.

    I’m not going to get into the obvious reasons why this is one if the worst TV reviews I’ve ever read, except to note, once again, the self-aggrandizing tone of the writer. Okay, I have to add that the way the writer, after seeing ONE episide twice, claims the shows writers couldn’t possibly write this good every week (fatalistic omniscience: what kind of reviewing is this?!).

    Then (!) she tells the basic outline of the plot and says, “To say more would be to reveal the central mystery of the pilot…” after she ALREADY revealed the central mystery of the pilot by stating that Randall, Kate, and Kevin are siblings. THAT’S the main twist. (He firehouse story is only relevent AFTER the sibling relation is revealed.) So the writer made a huge gaff–how did this slip by the editors?

    The Golden Age of television deserves seasoned, objective, talented reviewers.
    Your readers deserve them, too.

  2. Elisa Lister says:

    I like it very much so far. I find reviews that are negative when any emotion is displayed a bit trite. We are an emotional species and it’s part of the human condition when it’s written respectfully and acted this well. I am a hater of syrupy, shallow stuff (still angry with my husband who made me read The Bridges of Madison County) and I respectfully disagree with this review.

  3. R says:

    I really hated Parenthood – please no.
    Loved Friday Night Lights! Hmm…
    Well I’ve hung in, watching This Is Us until “The Pool” so far, and I like it. I think the key will be the kid-actors, how they grow, and can these adult-actors actually love them. So far the chemistry between both parties is hit and miss. Love the interracial, body-image issues; more please!

    Peace out :^)

  4. BigTex says:

    This is the old ABC hit “Thirtysomething” 30 years on. I saw a producer credit to Ken Olin who starred as one of the angst-ridden mid-80’s yuppies of that show….it’l be interesting to see if “This Is Us” has what it takes to be green-lit for another 13 episodes; that and if it can stay on its’ Tuesday night lead-in to “Chicago Fire”, then NBC will have a bona-fide hit.

  5. sasha says:

    love this show can’t wait to see the rest…….

  6. michael says:

    It is indeed junk…to have a triplet pregnancy patient (a very high risk pregnancy) pretending to do some sultry dance…followed by water breaking…followed by a very indignant husband forcing a vaginal delivery which it tantamount to medical malpractice,,,is utter crap. I was so hopeful about this show…but that is just stupid. I stopped watching after the husband insisted all should go well in a triple vaginal delivery because it is his birthday. I’m an obstetrician, and if I heard that, I would likely ask the patient to find another doc. grow up nbc…

  7. A1014 says:

    This show look very intersting. I give it 5/5.

  8. Ellen Baine says:

    I’d give Gerald McRaney an Emmy right now

  9. @laysazanetti says:

    I watched the pilot after having seen literally every single person on my timeline saying that there was a twist at the end, so I pretty much spent half the episode looking for it, and called pretty fast. It did surprise me and I liked the way they delivered it, but I was already concerned about that’s coming next before reading the review, so I’m relieved to see I’m not alone thinking about it. BUT, I do like Dan Fogelman’s writing and the pilot delivered to the expectations. Last, but not least: I really love how Sonia got to elaborate so much and so nicely without giving away *THE* information.

  10. Anita Miller says:

    Love this show. “. This is Us”!

  11. Rarely do I watch a show where every character, every line of dialogue, and very plot development give me nausea. Congratulations, NBC, you did it for me with this revolting piece of junk.

  12. TVKook! says:

    Thank you Sonia! I watched the pilot and my stomach tightened in revulsion . . .

  13. Rob Stein says:

    Maybe 6 episodes before they pull it??

  14. Mason says:

    The show sounds like it’s solidly written, directed, and acted. The review sounds like an idiot wrote it.

    • duckyineurope says:

      Correct.

      • BigTex says:

        I dunno, the review sounded even-handed enough without giving the “twist” completely away. I watched it tonight for the first time (Episode #3) and found the writing to be crisp, adult-like and no fart, tits, or poop jokes and the hour passed before i knew it; always a good sign. It reminds me of the mid-80’s yuppie-angst-fest drama “Thirtysomething” which became an ABC Thursday night warhorse in the ratings from 1986-91, then NBC came up with its’ massive hit parade on Thursday night including “Seinfeld”, “Mad About You” , and “Frasier”…game over. It’ll be interesting to see if NBC keeps “This Is Us” as a lead-in to “Chicago Fire” on Tuesday nights or if we’ll have to hunt for it on a weekly basis. If it goes to Saturday night, then it’ll be history by Thanksgiving.

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