“This Is Us” stylistically breaks TV tradition by combining fast-paced dialogue with tear-jerking plot twists while challenging the concept of linear time. With record-breaking ratings, the show begins with the simple concept that the average human being shares their birthday with at least 18 million other people. This premise links four of the main characters who all share the same birthday and who, in the first episode of the series, all turn 36 years old. Without divulging too many of the surprises within the series it is safe to say that the connection between the characters creates a compelling, heart string tugging family drama that resonates with viewers who enjoyed the likes of “Parenthood” and “Gilmore Girls.”
“This Is Us” comes from writer and executive producer Dan Fogelman of “Crazy Stupid Love” and is ambitious in the format of the series. At any point the show can move back and forth between decades and while this may sound confusing, for the most part the show is able to do it seamlessly. More importantly, clues about the present are revealed through the flashes of the past, leaving the viewer continuously guessing. This nonlinear plot development succeeds with the help of strong main characters.
The quick-witted Kate (Chrissy Metz) struggles with body image and self esteem issues as a result of being overweight, while falling in love with the jovial and also overweight Toby. Kate’s twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) is an incredibly successful sitcom star who feels similarly unsatisfied with his life. Kevin despises the superficial character he plays and wants to change his career. Finally, there is Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his beautiful, complicated family. Randall is a hardworking businessman who champions his two daughters and wife. Underneath his calm and confident exterior is a man struggling with the fact that his parents put him up for adoption many years ago. Additionally, the series focuses on the romance of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), a couple dealing with the struggles of raising triplets with equal attention and love, while trying to maintain the kind of marriage that makes viewers want to cry happy tears.
These characters are what make the show. Within each character we can recognize at least one person from our own lives. Though most of us do not know any television stars in real life, many of us know a charming narcissist with a big heart—a Kevin. We all know at least one Randall: over-achievers who often find themselves at the brink of a mental breakdown because of the intense pressure they put on themselves. We all know that fairytale-like couple who is irritatingly in love like Jack and Rebecca.
These extremely relatable characters face issues dealing with everything from sexuality to race and body image. But while the show doesn’t shy away from tough topics, it doesn’t throw them in your face either. Instead, issues surface gradually, handled with a dose of acceptance and an underlying realism. Kate’s struggles with her weight are at the forefront of her character. This was initially infuriating because it felt reductive to suggest that an overweight person would constantly be talking about and thinking about their weight. However, after reflection I realized that it would be even more problematic to ignore the obsessive nature of struggling with weight and body image. It would be troublesome to create a character who was obese and fail to even mention it. This is what “This Is Us” does so well: it makes space for tough conversations and does not ignore issues of identity.
While the characters make the episode structure work, the dialogue is what engages us as viewers. The fasted-paced, smart and believable script makes viewers laugh, while tugging at our heartstrings. The script compellingly captures life in small moments: flirtatious teasing between husband and wife, the silent moments of parenting that come in modest doses after all the loud moments of parenting, the easy and familiar banter between siblings. However, the dialogue is not always compelling. Often there are monologues that last too long. There are rants that make the show feel more like a heavy-handed stage play than a television show. There are moments when the dramatic arcs feel too heavy, when the actions feel unrealistic or when the show seems to move from heart- wrenching scene to heart-wrenching scene without giving viewers a chance to breathe. These moments, however, are ultimately not enough to detract from the overwhelming pleasure derived from watching the show. “This is Us” is the type of television where you forget that you are watching something on a screen. You forget that Randall, Kate and Kevin aren’t real people and that they aren’t actually walking around in the world right now messing up and making strides. You feel personally invested in their successes and equally affected by their failures.
With all the gimmicks and plot twists, it would be easy for the show to lose its appeal after a few episodes, but the remarkably crafted characters keep us coming back for more. As long as the characters continue developing in believable, relatable ways, “This Is Us” is unstoppable.