The hit American TV show is at turns beautiful, heartwarming, tear-jerking and heart-wrenching but never feels emotionally manipulative
Starring Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan, and Ron Cephas Jones
US drama This Is Us, while massively popular and successful in America, earning itself numerous accolades from Emmys to Golden Globes and massively notable for its nonlinear storytelling and its hugely emotional, relatable premise, has not made as much of an impact in the UK, with episodes appearing on Amazon Prime Video. A lot of its appeal stateside doubtless comes from the tradition of “event watching” and water cooler conversation, while watching it on-demand in England can feel a bit like watching it in a bubble.
This Is Us starts its run by introducing the audience to four characters experiencing their 36th birthday. There’s Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), whose wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) suddenly goes into labour with their expectant triplets; Kate (Chrissy Metz), who is struggling with her weight and eating habits and dotes on her twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), who, in turn, is finding it difficult fronting a comedy show called “The Manny” which entails him to spend the vast majority of his time shirtless while he wants to be treated as a serious actor. Rounding out the group is Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a black man in an otherwise white-dominated office who is seeking out his biological father who abandoned him at a fire station when he was a baby.
To say anything more about the twist that comes at the close of the pilot episode would be entirely spoiling it for any new viewers, but it is masterfully done, and is indicative of the many narrative tricks that Dan Fogelman and his writing team have up their sleeves. Even though one’s patience with the pilot episode would doubtless depend upon how significant you view being 36 is, as apparently it’s a very important birthday for personal revelations, This Is Us effectively uses juxtaposition, flashback, cliffhanger, and, crucially, vital omission of information to hook the audience.
Ultimately, a massive part of the appeal of This Is Us is what also made shows like Gilmore Girls and How I Met Your Mother so successful, and that’s largely through putting heart at the centre of the show. There’s a warmth and a comfort to This Is Us that make the moments of tragedy and sadness hit the audience so much harder than it would if it took itself seriously all of the time. Most of the time it comes as a complete surprise where a particular plot point goes, though it never feels tangential or shoehorned in.
The glue that holds the entire show together, other than the brilliant writing that nicely balances the cast out against each other, are the cast themselves. To single just one or two out would be a tremendous disservice to the hard work of everybody involved, but everybody has such a clear vision and knowledge of who their character is and what they believe in that every single person on This Is Us feels entirely three-dimensional and real. With such a large cast, there is also the worry that some of the characters might be forgotten about or fade into the background, but Fogelman does a brilliant job of bringing different characters to the fore at crucial moments. Critically, the show doesn’t shy away from showing us all dimensions of the cast, including their flaws. It is unapologetic in presenting characters in a negative way, and it doesn’t diminish the audience’s love or respect for them, just as it wouldn’t a friend in real life.
This Is Us is embedded within nostalgia and family and tragedy and self-discovery, and invites the audience to be a part of their world. The dialogue is witty, smart and realistic, and the issues and the drives of these characters feel universal and relatable. While the central mystery that propels Season 1 forwards does drag on perhaps for longer than perhaps is wise, the strength and depth of the characterisation on offer more than makes up for the small moments of narrative lag.
This Is Us is available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime Video