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.