×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

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

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

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

More TV

  • Outlander 406

    'Outlander' Recap: Jamie Encounters William Again in 'Blood of My Blood'

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Blood Of My Blood,” the sixth episode of “Outlander” Season 4. The action in “Blood of My Blood” picked up almost immediately after the previous week’s episode, as evidenced by the fact that Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) was still staying with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and [...]

  • The Flash -- "Elseworlds, Part 1"

    'Elseworlds, Part 1' Recap: Barry Allen and Oliver Queen Swap Skills, Visit Superman

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Elseworlds, Part 1,” the first part of the 2018 “Arrowverse” crossover, which aired Dec. 9. After past crossovers that introduced beloved characters’ doppelgangers, a wedding and death, “Elseworlds,” the fifth annual “Arrowverse” event, had a lot to which to live up. Unlike previous years, [...]

  • Stranger Things

    'Stranger Things' Season 3 Teaser Reveals Episode Titles, 2019 Release

    Netflix dropped a new teaser for the upcoming third season of “Stranger Things” Sunday, confirming that it will land on the streamer in 2019. The teaser also revealed the episode titles for the third season, which are as follows: “Suzie, Do You Copy?,” “The Mall Rats,” “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” “The Sauna Test,” [...]

  • Kyzza Terrazas Joins Garcia Bernal, Diego

    Kyzza Terrazas Joins Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna’s La Corriente del Golfo (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — Launching their new production house, La Corriente de Golfo, last April, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna have tapped Mexican writer-director Kyzza Terrazas as the company’s head of development. The appointment will certainly help build the company appointing an old-rounder capable of overseeing and implementing development, writing and directing, and a longtime [...]

  • Michael Che Defends Kevin Hart on

    Michael Che Ribs Academy Over Kevin Hart Controversy on 'SNL'

    Kevin Hart may have alienated some in Hollywood over his recently resurfaced homophobic tweets, but that didn’t stop “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che from cracking some jokes in support of Hart on Dec. 8’s “Saturday Night Live.” After briefly recapping that Hart stepped down from hosting the Oscars after the 2011 tweets came to light, [...]

  • THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY

    'The Umbrella Academy' Superheroes Series Premiere Date Set on Netflix

    The dysfunctional-family superheroes of “The Umbrella Academy” are landing on Netflix worldwide on Feb. 15, 2019. The live-action series is based on the “Umbrella Academy” comic books created and written by Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, published by Dark Horse Comics. The Netflix original series comprises 10 one-hour episodes. More Reviews Off Broadway [...]

  • SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Jason Momoa"

    Robert De Niro Appears as Robert Mueller in 'Saturday Night Live' Cold Open

    Robert De Niro made a surprise appearance as special counsel Robert Mueller in “Saturday Night Live’s” cold open. De Niro popped out of a closet in a sketch that skewered President Donald Trump and the mounting legal pressure Mueller’s investigation has put on many of Trump’s associates. Alex Moffatt played Eric Trump in a bedtime-story [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content