Theoretically, NBC’s This Is Us, which debuted Tuesday night, should be one of my favorite shows of the fall.
It’s pretty cheesy, but I love well-done cheese. Its drama is relatively low-stakes, but I love that, too. And above all else, its gentle family stories are the perfect palate cleanser for a TV landscape too addicted to pointless bombast.
And yet something about This Is Us gives me pause. Maybe it’s too earnest? Maybe it’s a little too enamored of all of the things I described above?
Or maybe it’s just too pleased with its own cleverness. Yes, the reason I didn’t want to talk about This Is Us until after it debuted is because the seemingly innocuous pilot hides a twist. And once you know there’s a twist, it becomes all you can look for.
Spoilers, obviously, follow.
The This Is Us pilot is a one-off trick that leaves no indication of where it’s going
So the big secret at the heart of This Is Us is that three of the characters are all turning 36 at the same time because they’re — more or less — triplets. (The fourth character turning 36, Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack, has a different connection to everybody else, about which more in a bit.) The show reveals very early on that Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) are brother and sister — and since you know they share a birthday, you realize they’re twins. So far, so good.
But the series takes its time with revealing their third sibling: Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a black man who was adopted as a baby by Kate and Kevin’s parents and grew up alongside them. As a sucker for adoption stories, I was more than prepared to go with this twist, especially if it was interested in exploring the occasionally fraught emotional territory of transracial adoptions.
But it’s the final revelation that makes me nervous. We learn that Jack and his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore, playing a very pregnant woman), are the parents of the other three characters. One of their biological triplets (a son) died in labor, so they adopted Randall, an abandoned baby who was brought into the hospital. In essence, they’re stuck in the early ’80s, while our other characters live in the present day.
As a one-off twist, it’s not bad. If this were, say, a Magnolia-style movie about how everything is connected and we can never understand the random patterns of the universe, it might even be a great twist. As the basis for a TV show, I have my doubts.
The best shows plant a seed in the pilot that flowers in future episodes. (Think of how, say, Mad Men introduced a bunch of potential areas to explore in the future.) But I’m not sure what the seed being planted here is, beyond structural trickery.
Once you start looking at the individual characters’ storylines — Jack and Rebecca are going to be parents, Kate struggles with her weight, Kevin wants his acting career to have meaning, Randall tracks down his biological father — they feel less like actual stories than like placeholders, characters to be filled in later.
It’s hard to hold too much of this against the show when the characters are played by great actors, and when the pilot has a script as emotionally adroit the one crafted by Dan Fogelman (perhaps most famous for his Crazy Stupid Love screenplay). But it’s almost impossible to know where the show goes from here — and I’ve seen enough shows without a clear sense of direction to be a little worried. (The one this most reminds me of is a 2006 show called The Nine, which posited a connection between its characters forged during a bank robbery but spent way too long teasing it out.)
Put another way: Most family dramas succeed because of emotional directness. So why blend a family drama with the structure of a mystery show like Lost, where keeping things from the audience is the point?
Once you know there’s a twist, it’s impossible not to see it
The only thing I knew about This Is Us going in was who was in the cast — and that there was a twist coming. And once I knew about the twist, it was very, very hard not to see it coming from the very earliest frames of the story.
Once I saw Jack was a Steelers fan, I started putting the pieces together. Yes, the Steelers are still popular now, even though they’re not in their late '70s glory, but the whole thing felt so clearly like a misdirect that I started trying to put the pieces together in my head.
And maybe that’s on me more than the show. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is. But at the same time, it speaks to how thin the whole story here ultimately is, and to any concerns viewers might have about how, say, Jack and Rebecca are going to be integrated into the storylines going forward.
At the Television Critics Association summer press tour in August, Fogelman insisted that the show is structured like Lost — where the pasts of the kids in the present will factor into who they are right now. In the best possible version of that setup, then, the Jack and Rebecca stories act as mirrors for what their kids are doing in 2016.
But television tends to coalesce. It’s not impossible to keep characters in separate timelines and worlds forever. Indeed, Game of Thrones is doing just fine at that task even as we speak. But that’s both a show that only does 10 episodes a year (at most) and one where the characters really are going to come together at some point. This Is Us doesn’t have that potential out, and I’ve seen just enough shows fall apart on this very point to be nervous.
But one thing’s for sure: There’s something here. So I’ll keep watching.