With streaming services at peak popularity, binge-watching has become the primary way most Americans consume media, and thus network television has begun a steady decline. Networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC have grown concerned for their futures as Netflix and Hulu increase their amount of original content every year. With the exception of networks such as the CW and Fox, networks are eager for a steady supply of tent-pole shows guaranteed to have viewers tune in weekly. NBC may have found that tentpole with their new family drama “This Is Us,” which just wrapped its first season.
“This is Us” drew an average of 10 million viewers in its first season. The show follows the lives of a large, colorful family through two time periods. The first timeline follows Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), a white middle-class couple, in the 1980s as they navigate raising their three children; Kevin, Kate and Randall their adopted black son. The second timeline follows Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown) in the present day, each of who has gone on a wildly different path. Kevin tries to make it as a respected actor after quitting his long-running lead role on a mediocre sitcom, Kate navigates a relationship with a guy she meets at a weight-loss support group and Randall finds and connects with his biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), who abandoned him as an infant. As the storylines begin to mesh with each other, we learn more about each character’s personal lives, values and inner demons.
I did not think much of “This Is Us” when I first caught a glimpse of it scrolling through channels one day. In fact, I initially thought that I was just watching a commercial because of the acoustic guitar music, lens flare and overly stationary camerawork over widely smiling actors. I decided to watch the show seriously after my parents and several family friends strongly recommended it. Upon completion of the first episode, I immediately understood the appeal around my family’s circle. At first, I was quick to dismiss the show’s politics as too vanilla and naïve, but the characters in “This Is Us” are, for the most part, good people. The siblings’ love for each other is genuine and on constant display, and characters consistently make sacrifices for each other and do the small gestures associated with such affection. If I were to sum up this show in Sparknotes fashion, it is a tale of romantic and familial love through everyday hardship. However, while its general summary can be distilled to a familiar formula, and elements of this formula’s clichés often appear in the show, the summary does not properly encapsulate the show’s ambitions.
“This Is Us” has a lot on its plate — to put it mildly — and fortunately, some of it is handled really well. Randall’s relationship with his estranged biological father William is complex and heartwarming, and the show’s writers do a fine job of developing their relationship organically through the season. It helps that their bond has a sense of urgency, as William is in the final stages of terminal stomach cancer. I found myself touched by their relationship and liking William as a character without forgiving him for the sin of abandoning his son. The show also explores Jack and Rebecca’s marriage and challenges raising their children. Their relationship is also sufficiently believable. I received a genuine sense of how parents cope with the needs of the children dominating their lives and their desire to be free of those burdens, as we see through Rebecca’s part-time hobby as lead singer of a band. However, many elements in the show do not leave much emotional impact or are bogged down in clichés.
A prime example is Kate and Kevin’s storylines. Kevin, Jack and Rebecca’s biological son is a Hollywood actor in the present-day who recently quit from a one-note role that did not satisfy him creatively. His storyline follows his move to New York City to become a “real, dramatic actor” in theater. Kevin is, by far, the least dimensional character of the “Big Three” as his challenges mostly revolve around his vanity, insecurity and failed relationships with women. Kevin’s cluelessness toward anything but the enhancement of his own image is played mostly for (poor) comedy, which makes it hard to take his troubles with women seriously, which the show spends so much time covering. The show also addresses Kevin’s neglect towards Randall during childhood, but the writing is underdeveloped and only carried by Brown’s performance rather than any proper execution of Kevin’s characterization.
Finally, there’s Kate’s plot, which could have been a fantastic story but falls short due to some narrative shortcuts. Kate has lived with morbid obesity since childhood and struggles to see herself in a positive light, especially when comparing herself to her conventionally beautiful mother. She meets another overweight guy at a support group, Toby (Chris Sullivan), with whom she starts a relationship. Kate’s story is inherently more engaging than Kevin’s, and her character more fleshed out, but the writers struggle to find compelling stories beyond the ones that hinge on her relationship with Toby or her self-worth. Chrissy Metz gives a star-making performance, but her story takes many unexpected detours that do not have much dramatic payoff or only serve to rehash certain story beats. Ultimately, both Kate’s and Kevin’s could not survive on their own without context from the other stories to support them, unlike Randall’s, which is so strong it could almost be self-contained. Most of the emotional labor feels shifted from their specific storyline domains to characters and stories either from the past or having to do with Randall. After this season, I am not confident that Kate and Kevin could successfully carry their own stories for more than a few episodes.
As for the way the show is shot, I am personally not in love with it. The show looks very cheap, especially during the many montages, and the vibe often takes me out of the moment. Halfway through the season, I found myself wondering how much of the show’s budget went toward licensing acoustic guitar ballads when, according to Twitter, I was supposed to be crying. The show revels in close-ups and lens flares, and these work well during emotional moments or dreamlike sequences but can be distracting otherwise.
The strongest aspect of the series is the ensemble. Brown, Jones and Metz are particular highlights, and each manages to give their characters vulnerability and charm without being sentimental. I am personally rooting for Brown to win an Emmy for his performance. Ventimiglia also portrays a strong, warm paternalistic presence as Jack, although at times I felt his character came off a little too saintly. Though the show does have its reasons for this, the cheesiness of Jack’s super-dad persona could get grating. My wishlist for Season 2 is that the woman characters go through more ambitious narrative journeys and are given room to display their acting range. Season 1 was most certainly the season for father figures, for better or worse.
It’s rare to see a network show shoot to success as fast as “This Is Us.” NBC has already renewed it for two more seasons and weekly viewership shows no signs of slowing down. If you enjoy heartwarming family dramas tackling heavy themes and do not mind the clichés and narrative shortcuts that come with the genre, then “This Is Us” may well be your new favorite show. There are serious flaws, ones that are hard for me to ignore, but it feels earnest, and the actors clearly love this show dearly and put a lot of work into making people cry week by week. Although I am intrigued by the concept and entertained enough to pass the time with it weekly, I don’t expect to shed tears anytime soon.