The runaway success of This Is Us (9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC) is something of a surprise, considering network TV’s revolving door of new series and their struggle to compete with flashy cable fare. A second season, dozens of award nominations (including the first broadcast drama series to be up for an Emmy in five years) and several wins later, it’s clear why the series strikes such a chord among audiences and critics alike.
It was the comparison to a previous NBC family drama, Parenthood, that lured me into This Is Us and, like millions of others, I was hooked by the twisty, nonlinear narrative following the Pearson family across multiple time periods. Between the substantial mix of diverse characters, their various personal struggles and triumphs at different points in life and their complicated relationships with one another, every viewer can identify with at least one Pearson or storyline.
“There’s something for everyone” can be a clichéd trap. Try too hard to be universally relatable and you might lose touch with your audience completely. Then there are the gut-wrenching plot twists, often resulting in a cliffhanger. There are hits and misses. The reveal at the end of the series premiere — that the show was actually flashing between 1980 and present day, following three siblings on their 36th birthday and on the day the “Big Three” were born — was a thoughtfully calculated surprise. Meanwhile, the cloud of Pearson patriarch Jack’s imminent death has needlessly hung over the series since its fifth episode. Viewers have lamented this grim mystery, especially when it seemed like the mystery would come to light in the first season finale, only to get a bait-and-switch. But more on that later.
This Is Us manages to indulge and tease audiences (and sometimes string us along) while still capturing real human emotion. However gimmicky or overly gratifying it may seem, the show has heart, and the ensemble acting to make it beat.
The show struck gold with its casting of Sterling K. Brown, who has won Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards (among others) for his role as Randall. More than any of these crazy, mixed-up Pearson kids, Randall is an extremely complex character. A black man adopted as a newborn by a white family when they lose one of their triplets in childbirth, Randall has to try twice as hard to find his place. We’ve seen him as an overachieving family man balancing the high-pressure job; we’ve watched him break down and reveal all his vulnerabilities. Brown captures all of these identities in his portrayal of Randall and he’s the crown jewel in a fantastic ensemble. I particularly love the young actors playing the Big Three at ages 8-10 and 15-17.
And we’ve all fallen in love with sweet Jack, personified by Milo Ventimiglia in a rotation of facial hair to reflect the time period. We also know that he dies at some point, with sparse details slowly revealed: daughter Kate feels responsible for his death; it happened when the kids were teens in the late-’90s; a house fire is the cause. It wasn’t until the most recent episode that we finally saw the beginning of the end for Jack — and learned about the dangers of an unattended Crock-Pot.
The continuation of the fire scene airs Sunday night after the Super Bowl (another new episode airs at its regular time Tuesday), which is sadly fitting for the show’s timeline — everything goes down the night of that big game in 1998. Will This Is Us retain its captive audience after this long lingering question is finally answered? Of course. I don’t think anyone truly tuned in just to see if this is the episode where Jack dies. In fact, I think moving past this “Will he or won’t he?” will only benefit the series.
Because more than serving as a grab at human experiences or even cry-porn (there are some really funny, heartwarming scenes, too), This Is Us is really about consequences, cause and effect and how one seemingly small moment can make a lifetime of an impact. The fact that it’s so popular, emotional or relatable will turn some people off, but I say take the show for what it is, cozy up with a loved one and just enjoy this fun family therapy session.
Contact Jac Kern: @jackern