Even by the standards of network television, NBC’s “The Village” wears its inspiration boldly and openly: It’s “This Is Us,” except set among the disparate residents of an apartment building rather than the members of a family. “The Village” leans, hard, into the “This Is Us” formula of trauma-as-drama, deriving its tone from its characters perpetually making their way through the worst days of their lives and building moments of emotional catharsis and connection practically before every ad break.
Which is fine, as far as it goes — the medium runs on repetition, with slight alteration, and “This Is Us,” a surprisingly durable hit, is as good a template to crib as any. But, though it has plenty of its own issues, “This Is Us” is a notably well-acted and tonally consistent series. “The Village,” by contrast, veers all over the map and does not boast actors capable of selling all of the lines they’re given. “The Village’s” idiosyncracies, then, come to seem studied and affected, and its moments of connection like rudimentary and naked bits of manipulation.
The main story of the series involves Sarah Campbell (Michaela McManus), a nursing-home employee whose teen daughter, Katie (Grace Van Dien) reveals in the series’s first episode that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, military veteran Nick Porter (Warren Christie) has just moved into the same New York City building; I won’t reveal his connection to the Campbells here, so as to preserve the story, but there’s little sense of discovery once it’s revealed. The show can’t seem to get out of its way, revealing plot elements with thudding obviousness: These include not merely Nick’s story but also plotlines involving Lorraine Toussaint as a neighbor with cancer and Dominic Chianese as an older gent who’s looking for appreciation and love. Toussaint doesn’t just suffer — she collapses theatrically while performing at an open mic night. And Chianese isn’t just winsome — he goes on a quixotic mission to find a woman with whom he’s smitten, with only her misplaced library book as a clue to her identity.
These are the sort of things that make sense on the page but that fail to track when put before actors to perform. Unfortunately, the show’s heaviest lifting falls to McManus and Van Dien, who consistently bear the worst cliches and most unbelievable interactions. The nature of their relationship changes from moment to moment, depending on the intended effect. Sometimes they bond by talking in a “1930s movie voice,” like they’re on a less cerebral “Gilmore Girls,” and sometimes they bond by dancing cathartically together. McManus’s Sarah sometimes works in overwrought metaphor — as when she talks about mothers exchanging cells with their babies in utero and tells Katie “I’m in your bones, girl” — and is sometimes painfully, weirdly direct. (We learn that she was inspired to keep her baby by watching news coverage of Sept. 11: “I kept seeing those towers fall on the news. People so scared they were jumping out, and I couldn’t get out of my head that I needed to do something radically good in their memory.”) One line in the pilot suggests exactly when the script, with its familiar blend of strained metaphor and emotional self-indulgence, might have felt more fresh. Sarah asks a potential love interest whether he believes in soul mates: “Do you believe in that — one in six billion is perfect for you?” The world’s population hit six billion in 1999; it’s been past seven for years.
The characters of “The Village” feel put through the paces of real issues — teen pregnancy, post-traumatic stress, cancer, immigration enforcement, the strain of aging. But it’s vanishingly rare that they feel real. (Christie, for instance, is doing his best to give a real performance as the military vet, but is surrounded in every episode by characters whose behavior is so strange and unrecognizable as to deflate any impact his storyline might have.) For a show rooted in a single building, there’s remarkably little sense of place; this show exists not in a fictional New York but in the TV land where everyone is moments away from monologuing, a place that’s grown uninteresting as we’ve visited it so often. The show spends so much energy trying to make its viewer cry that it loses sight of what’s often the most emotionally moving aspect of art — our identification with characters we recognize. “The Village,” over and over, stops short at establishing the situation; that you’ll be dry-eyed is only a failure because the show’s goal of heart-tugging is so transparent.
“The Village.” NBC. March 19. Four episodes screened for review.
Cast: Warren Christie, Michaela McManus, Lorraine Toussaint, Frankie Faison, Jerod Haynes, Dominic Chianese, Daren Kagasoff, Grace Van Dien, Moran Atias
Executive Producers: Mike Daniels, Jessica Rhoades, Minkie Spiro