*Warning: Spoilers follow for the first 3 episodes of This Is Us:
With an all-star cast, including Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, and Chrissy Metz, NBC debuted its new show This Is Us on September 20. This Is Us follows the lives of three families: Jack and Rebecca, a young couple struggling to raise three newborn babies, Kate and her bachelor brother, Kevin, who rely on the emotional support of one another, and Randall, a family man seeking answers about his childhood adoption. The Pilot episode explores each of these stories separately; it appears that the only connection between the three stories is that Jack, Kate, Kevin, and Randall all share the same birthday. The closing scene, however, reveals that Jack and Rebecca’s story occurs thirty-six years before the other stories. The three children they raise are young Kate, Kevin, and Randall, who was adopted at the hospital when Jack and Rebecca’s third triplet was stillborn. This Is Us has continued to employ the late-reveal plot device in subsequent episodes, which heightens viewers’ anticipation for the next episode.
This plot device has helped This Is Us become NBC’s standout new hit of the season, with a 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating and an 8.8/10 on IMDB, but the issues the show addresses and the manner in which they are addressed are This Is Us’s primary reason for success. As a young parent, Jack struggles with the responsibility of raising a family and an increasing dependence on alcohol. On her thirty-sixth birthday, Kate decides enough is enough, and this will be the year she sheds her unhealthy extra weight. Trapped in a sitcom role that exploits his appearance, Kevin quits his job in search of a more meaningful theatrical pursuit in which he can showcase his acting prowess rather than his abs. An African-American boy raised by a Caucasian family, as a child, Randall fought for acceptance among the community and from his own brother, Kevin. When Randall finally finds his father after years of searching, he finds a man suffering the consequences of years of drug addiction.
The potency of This Is Us rests in the realistic approach taken in covering and exploring these problems. Jack’s alcoholism forces Rebecca to set an ultimatum, which Jack is shown accepting in the past, but a visit paid by ‘Grandma and Grandpa’ to Randall’s kids in the present day shows Rebecca married to another man. Despite Kate’s dedication to a healthier lifestyle, with more exercise, fat-free-sugar-free-low calorie meals, and enrollment in a support group, her weight loss regime remains slow and ineffective. Randall realises that he will soon lose his newfound biological father to stomach cancer. Not every story receives a happy ending no matter how much the characters may desire it; and in a world where reality television surrounds society with life-changing success stories, This Is Us serves to remind the world of the importance and reality of personal difficulties and failure in everyday life.
While This Is Us may require a box of tissues on standby, the show still manages to provide a light and funny atmosphere. Toby, an overweight gentleman from Kate’s support group, remains confident in himself and is the show’s primary provider of comic-relief. From silently mocking other members of the support group to confusing Deadpool with Hamilton, Toby makes both the characters in the show and the audience laugh when they are about to cry. Randall’s brutally frank wife and daughters are another source of comedy, one particular highlight being his younger daughter’s comparison of her asthma to a cocaine addiction. Similarly, tense dialogue between Randall, Kevin, and Kate is lightened by sibling banter such as Kate’s reply to Kevin’s question of what he did for the two minutes of his life before Kate was born; “You cried and you crapped a lot”.
Moving forward, This Is Us faces unique challenges to retain its current momentum. The show’s movement between past and present provides a set of unanswered questions of what happened during the thirty-six year plot gap that captures the audience’s attention, but the show must be careful to tread the line, answering enough questions to maintain audience interest without giving all their secrets away. If the producers of This Is Us can pull off this delicate balance between mystery and explanation, the show may have the potential to become one of the best television shows in history, not just of the fall 2016 TV season.