NBC’s “This Is Us,” which wraps up a successful first season Tuesday night, meets a lot of crucial needs at once, in an era where people often feel as if their needs aren’t being met at all.
No, that’s not another easy swipe at the GOP. Depending on where and how you live, all kinds of things have been slowly stripped away for years: jobs, national security, old loyalties, social entitlements, benefits and, more broadly, a sense of belonging within the makeshift American family. Neediness abounds.
Along comes a simple TV show about a nice-enough family coping with their own unmet needs and some unresolved issues — grief, anxiety, obesity, sickness, lost loves and resentment (to name a few). In “This Is Us,” feelings in the Pearson family stretch back at least as far as a Pittsburgh hospital delivery room in 1980 and now preoccupy the Rest of Us in the present day.
Forget your problems and focus on theirs: That’s the great gift of the rare, relatable weekly weepy, in the tradition of such sentimental hits as “thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life,” “Friday Night Lights, “Parenthood” and a scant few others that managed to memorably plumb family dysfunction without adding extra soap suds, felonies and other ratings-tweaking stunts.
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Tethered to a believable foundation, “This Is Us” satisfyingly counters its ups with precisely enough downs. It’s a show that is pleasant and sad, but not too sad, not right now, no-thank-you — even as Tuesday’s episode, titled “Moonshadow,” hints at being the show’s saddest yet, flashing back to a death scene, circa 1995, that was predetermined from the September premiere.
As fans know, we may at last see how Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) died, leaving behind his loving wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and their three children, who were all 15 at the time: Randall, Kevin and Kate (“the Big Three” as their father nicknamed them), played as adults by Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz. In the buildup to the finale, Kate has revealed to her fiance, Toby (Chris Sullivan), that she feels responsible for her father’s death, because she encouraged him to make that fateful two-hour drive to reassure Rebecca of his love. Sniff.
In a more direct way, “This Is Us” met a dire need at NBC by becoming what passes these days for an original prime-time hit (one that isn’t about crime, fires and other emergencies in Chicago), with recent episodes luring about 11 million viewers who watched live or soon thereafter. The delighted network has already ordered another two seasons, enough “This Is Us” to last until 2019.
But is it art? Gosh, no. Created by Dan Fogelman (whose film and TV work includes “Crazy Stupid Love,” “Cars” and ABC’s “Galavant”), “This Is Us” is innovative only in its use of chronology and memory, storing its bigger surprises within well-engineered flashbacks. The rest is pure old-fashioned one-hour drama of the sort that comes with acoustic coffeehouse pop hits playing in the background and characters who are never at a loss for dense, emphatically delivered monologues that explain how they feel.
In promoting “This Is Us” last summer, NBC begged critics not to blow its initial surprise (even though nearly everything about the show seems obvious from a mile or so away), which explained that Jack and Rebecca were expecting triplets and that this had occurred 36 years in the past. One of the infants died during delivery, but Jack and Rebecca were compelled to adopt a newborn who had been abandoned and brought to the same hospital. The adult characters now at the center of the show are these three babies, grown up.
That the adopted son, Randall, is African-American and the rest of the Pearsons are white is one of those calculated acts of direct diversity that the networks have spent the past decade or so discovering, even though viewers and critics had been urging them to discover diversity for years.
Now you could just call it blunt inclusiveness. Ensuring that adult Randall isn’t just a token black person, “This Is Us” presents him as a successful financial executive, husband and father of two whose perfectionism and anxiety disorder can sometimes cause panic attacks. To that, “This Is Us” also began Randall’s story with him locating his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), who’d abandoned him 36 years earlier. William, a recovering drug addict, moves in with Randall’s family, just in time to get sick and die in the most cathartic way possible.
At Christmastime, another box (this one marked “gay”) checked itself off when William’s former lover, Jessie (Denis O’Hare), showed up seeking closure. With Randall’s situation alone, one loses track of all the notes that are conveniently hit, yet Brown’s confident performance absorbs and honors each of Randall’s bullet points.
“This Is Us” makes a similarly overt bid for the Weight Watchers demographic, focusing on adult Kate’s attempt to conquer obesity. This permanent story arc works with everything Oprah Winfrey and a host of others have taught us about being fat — the emotional tools that brought our culture to a point of both reckoning and respect. Here, the producers have lucked out with Metz’s thoughtful and endearing performance, because it’s awfully easy to write and present fat people as pathetic first, and everything else second.
In the second episode Kate reminded Toby, whom she met at a weight-loss support group, that her weight would never stop being her first thought in any situation. Toby’s response was vintage “This Is Us,” in which characters always (always!) have the right —and eloquently verbose and metaphor-rich — reply:
“Look, we have had three lunches and four dinner dates,” he starts. “We have made out seven times and heavy-petted twice. Our plane is rapidly approaching the boyfriend/girlfriend zone, and I, for one, am prepared for landing. But I need to know that everything isn’t always going to be about our weight. We need to be able to cut loose at parties, we need to be able to get really dressed up, we need to have sex — and I just slipped that in there very casually, because I think that’s something that we should start doing very soon, so Kate, I am asking you, please, for the love of God, can we spend one fat-free night? …” (There’s more — I cut him off here. Frankly, Toby had viewers at hello, which is why we all feared the worst when he keeled over from a Christmas-episode heart attack.)
It’s sometimes difficult to make a critical case for “This Is Us,” especially as fans begin to speak of it in the same breath as “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” when, to be honest, it might only be working at the level of a “Dawson’s Creek” or a “Party of Five” or other popular dramas of yore. “Family,” “Eight Is Enough” or “The Waltons” — the classics go way back and remain in our hearts for a reason.
That’s why it might be more fun and even professionally satisfying to rip “This Is Us” to shreds, for trying too hard to worm its way in. (“Invigoratingly heinous,” wrote Slate’s TV critic, Willa Paskin, back when the show premiered.)
Is it the writing that makes it worth watching? Not particularly.
Is it the acting? No, at least not in an Emmy-gathering way.
That leaves us only with the platonic ideal of criticism: Is “This Is Us” good at what it’s trying to achieve?
On that front, the answer is a thousand times yes. “This Is Us” is extraordinarily good at dispensing just the right dose of TV’s version of catharsis. It is welcoming — easy to access and easy to stick with. (You can miss an episode and not suffer the chore of searching for a recap.) And aside from its initial guessing game with timelines, there is no mystery about who’s who or what’s what. Deplore the sap all you want, but admire the consistency and construction.
The show is also a good reminder that TV is too often missing out on dramas about families where you wind up feeling like part of the family, instead of a lurid observer. It’s still too soon to tell if “This Is Us” works at that high a level, but right now it’s offering a nice hug and an imaginary shoulder to lean on. Who in America doesn’t need that?
Where to watch
The one-hour season finale of “This Is Us” airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.