Since “Parks and Recreation” and “Parenthood” left the air in 2015, NBC’s lineup has been missing shows that carry their banners. NBC started programming more mainstream, plot-based content like the procedural “Chicago” franchise and dramas like “Blindspot” and “The Blacklist,” but were missing shows that were warm, sweet and incredibly enjoyable to watch on a weekly basis. It took 18 months, but NBC might have found something to fill those holes in their lineup with “This is Us.” The pilot episode contains character development and emotional payoff that suggest a show that will effectively go for the jugular each week, and will only become more effective as time goes on.
“This is Us” follows a few different groups of people as they move through their lives. There’s Jack (Milo Ventimiglia, “Heroes”) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore, “Tangled”), who are about to become parents as Rebecca gives birth in the first episode; Kate (Chrissy Metz, “American Horror Story”), an overweight woman who starts to attend a weight loss support group where she meets Toby (Chris Sullivan, “Stranger Things”), an overweight man who she begins dating; Kate’s brother Kevin (Justin Hartley, “Smallville”), an actor who stars on a multi-cam sitcom; and Randall (newly anointed Emmy Award Winner Sterling K. Brown, “The People vs. OJ Simpson”), a successful professional who tracks down his biological father.
These stories are simple at the surface, but “This is Us” excellently digs into them. The drama isn’t necessarily for plot significance; instead, it’s focused on developing its characters. That’s what’s most successful in this pilot. Until the last few minutes, the hour is about getting to know the people who the show will be following, setting up what they need to do to grow on a week-to-week basis. It’s a classic character-focused format, and it’s something that’s been sorely missing from NBC’s lineup.
Much like “Parenthood,” “This is Us” goes for the emotional jugular in its emotional payoffs. Each story ends with some sort of moment where the music swells and the characters share some sort of “moment.” Whether it’s Jack and his wife’s elderly OBGYN (Gerald McRaney, “House of Cards”) having a heartfelt conversation as the doctor tells Jack about what happened during the birth, or Randall bringing home his biological father to meet his grandkids, the last ten minutes are filled with effectively treacly scenes. There is an element of emotional manipulation; because this is only the first episode, and I’ve only spent 40 minutes with these characters, it’s hard to care for them as strongly as I did for the Bravermans toward the end of “Parenthood,” which is how the show seems to expect me to feel. Hopefully, this will become easier as the show goes on and they spend more time growing these characters.
It’s impossible to talk about “This is Us” without discussing the huge twist at the end of the pilot. If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading here, go watch it and come back.
The last moments of “This is Us” reveal the children Jack and Rebecca have are Kate and Kevin, and they adopt Randall after he’s brought into the hospital by a fireman and they lose their third triplet in the birth. So, this is a show that will be taking place across two different decades, with Jack and Rebecca in the ’70s and their now adult children in the present. It’s a compelling bait-and-switch that’s only matched in this week’s premieres by creator Dan Fogelman’s (“Galavant”) other drama, “Pitch.” This could easily become a gimmick, where the drama relies on the twist to force its emotional payoffs (especially because it doesn’t reveal the fates of the parents in the present). However, if used well, it can connect the lessons the parents learn in the past with what the kids are doing in the present. The trick will be to not force ties between past and present where they don’t belong.
The twist in “This is Us” has somewhat overshadowed discussion of the other aspects of the pilot. It’s a very good twist, but it wouldn’t work without all the convincing character work earlier in the episode. “Parks and Recreation” and “Parenthood” are two of my favorite shows, and comparing them to “This is Us” is setting an awfully high bar for the new series to cross. However, if this drama reaches its full potential, it will easily be up there as one of the best on network television.