NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, TV’s highest-rated dramatic series since Fox’s Empire, is also TV’s best new show in years. This ingenious yet simple series combines classic television storytelling with a current Hollywood trend—the time or flashback gimmick that’s so ubiquitous it’s annoying—to create a powerful vehicle for dramatizing today’s individual in the family, often at his best. This Is Us is emotionally balanced and satisfying. It’s the best show I’ve seen in decades.
Its distinguishing quality is clarity in portraying modern life as it is and ought to be, fed by an utter lack of cynicism. It’s not about supernatural, artificial or comic book characters. There are no thrones, crowns or cartoons and there’s none of the vulgar, trashy made-you-look appeal of HBO and so-called reality TV programming. This is pure, middle class adult American fiction, so if you don’t think people can be kind, decent and complicated—while being exceptional, amazing and fallible—and live in harmony, This Is Us is not for you. For the rest of us, this show is heir to TV’s most earnest and universal family-themed series including Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Parenthood and Frasier. It is that simple, serious and good.
Every one of its 18 episodes peels another layer in the family created by Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who make their own lives and family. The first and final episodes begin and end with these two characters, played with conviction by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, with thoughtful surprises in every episode in between. This Is Us defies description because its inventive approach to storytelling is integrative, so each plot development folds into the rest of the characters’ arcs, though rarely in obvious, pat or predictable ways. This Is Us is created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Disney’s Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Last Vegas and The Guilt Trip. Fogelman also created ABC’s Galavant. Besides the parenting leads, the main characters are their three children, played as adults by Chrissy Metz as an insecure and obese twin, Justin Hartley as her handsome twin brother and Sterling K. Brown as their wealthy, adopted brother.
More thematically essential to the series, which is so carefully threaded that it’s more like an extended miniseries, subplots dovetail into deeper themes. A long-lost musician father (outstanding Ron Cephas Jones) with terminal cancer returns for an elegy on the meaning of life. A doctor, played by Gerald McRaney in one of the best supporting performances on dramatic television, imparts his hard-earned wisdom in saving, delivering and coping with the loss of life. My favorite supporting character, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the show’s best actors), is so witty, rational and soothing that, when she hurts, it sneaks up on everyone. This is the theme of This Is Us—that this is life in America, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Memphis, New York or LA; that this is it, here and now, and what matters is that which promotes life.
This is not one of those TV dramas that begs to be taken seriously for its own sake, however. The action, pathos and jaw-dropping drama, and the season is loaded with each, isn’t excessively somber, self-important or pretentious, like thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues or other heavy shows praised by critics that often put you to sleep. It isn’t downbeat like that. Besides light touches of humor, This Is Us is rooted in its premise that humanity is good, the universe is benevolent and problems can be solved.
Don’t take this to mean that This Is Us expresses pure romanticism (it doesn’t). Naturalism with romanticist strokes best captures its style. But, from the birth of a baby to the separation of a marriage, this program is unique in that the audience is cultivated to root for its characters to succeed, flourish and be happy. Happiness is its natural state. The characters’ conflicts, flaws and idiosyncrasies are mined for drama, not implanted for permanence. The strongest impressions are made by the exhibition of those values by which these characters seek to reach new, exciting and radical improvements, achievements and the highest goals.
For example, the panic attack that strikes a trader in weather derivatives strengthens a bond with his brother and triggers a soul-searching introspection. An actor quits at the top of his game and takes a lesser role to pursue his personal best. An artist strikes out on her own only to get pregnant and have her dreams derailed while a woman goes to what she calls “fat camp” to get thin and unlocks an emotional fury that leads to a crucial catharsis. And a husband and father delays gratification so he can be a better man, which, to him, means escaping the hell of his own family and becoming one of the good guys. That this happens with alcoholism, drug addiction, unwed motherhood, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, body shaming and more only deepens the meaning of this rich, textured show.
This Is Us is not without flaws. Period specificity, including costumes, songs, mannerisms and the way people talk lacks credibility as the show goes on, sometimes to distraction. But intelligent writing, wisdom and sincerity, which only occasionally slips into sentimentality, overcomes its problems. It is true that This Is Us touches the audience with heartbreaking scenes (don’t judge the show by its sappy Twitter feed, which disproportionately features fans measuring impact by tears). Yet it takes wrenching problems in daily life and dramatizes realistic, practical and often enlightening solutions. It renders this with serious writing, directing and acting, leaving the audience lighter, smarter and wiser and all in the halo of its main man, alpha male, father figure, Jack Pearson, whose vision of the ideal family undergirds the show.
This Is Us plays its plot points and character arcs with idealism, not cynicism, and its protagonists’ ethics are essentially egoistic. They aim to act in their self-interest and generally try to go by reason. The show’s tightly integrated plot, theme and cast of characters play as compelling. Some may prejudge and recoil from the show’s looks and arcs. Similarly, This Is Us will not satisfy feminists, multiculturalists and other egalitarians because it makes a fundamentally strong stance for being one’s best and individualism (even, in its own way, capitalism). This is why This Is Us stands out as the most serious drama on TV. It’s a show that’s aligned with reality as it is and, while not in the largest sense, ought to be. Watch for what it’s not—cynical and spewing against everything all the time—and take it for what it is. But watch (from the start), think and enjoy.