In a life full of what-ifs, there are a few things that I am absolutely positive about. Hearing your own voice on a recording is horrific, diagonally cut sandwiches will always taste better and if I am going to watch an episode of “This Is Us,” I am going to cry.
Seriously, watching “This Is Us” is like getting punched in the gut with a pillowcase full of feelings.
In its first episode, the show sets up a deceptively simple premise: a group of people are all born on the same day and that fact alone connects them. The story begins on the 36th birthday of several birthday sharers who, in typical midlife-crisis form, are all dealing with their own set of challenges.
First is Jack, a nervous father-to-be whose day takes a turn when his wife Rebecca, pregnant with triplets, goes into labor. In a separate story, Kate, a personal assistant to her twin brother Kevin, is struggling with the fact that another year has passed and she still has not lost the weight she wants to. Kevin is a chiseled actor whose role in the popular sitcom “The Manny” makes him feel like he will never be taken seriously as an artist. And lastly Randall decides on his birthday to confront his birth father who abandoned him on a firehouse doorstep as a baby.
It is the kind of syrupy gimmick I would expect from a network family drama, and honestly I was hesitant to start watching because of it. However, “This Is Us” quickly subverted my expectations by balancing its saccharine elements with clever dialogue and genuine surprises.
Although I hate to ruin the fun of the first episode, it is near impossible to talk about this show without revealing a couple spoilers. First of all, it is quickly revealed that everything is not what it seems. In the last minutes of the premiere, “This Is Us” smoothly divulges that no, these are not randomly connected people, they are actually all family: Jack and Rebecca are Kevin, Kate and Randall’s parents, since they were adopted by the couple when they lost the third baby during childbirth. This revelation also uncovers the premiere’s second plot twist: The scenes of Jack and Rebecca are from 1979, and the scenes of the other characters are from the present day.
While the premiere’s big surprise was without a doubt the show’s best so far, the show has deliciously subverted the audience’s expectations by constantly changing and revealing major details about its characters. Admittedly, the show sometimes sacrifices nuance in favor of crafting these big reveals. Also, at times it can feel a little too eager to wrap things up with a big sweeping speech and a lesson.
However, even when the writing falls flat, the cast’s brilliant performances manage to keep the show grounded.
Particularly, Sterling K. Brown breathes intricate emotion into his performance of the tightly-wound, passionate Randall. His portrayal helps to make Randall’s reconciliation with his estranged father William, skillfully performed by Ron Cephas Jones, one of the show’s most rewarding storylines. Particularly in the twosome’s main storyline’s cumulative episode, “Memphis,” their performances help make the simple, bittersweet road trip story the best episode of the season.
More often than not, the writing packs major emotional truth, and the writers have obviously done their research. Most notably, the show tackles the complexity of interracial adoption with great grace. I am also impressed with the show’s handling of loss and the potential loss of a family member.
Another element of “This Is Us” I find particularly captivating is its time-jumping structure, as the majority of the episodes have continued the precedent set by the premiere by including multiple storylines within the characters’ lives. It is a brilliant format which successfully drives home to the audience the entire point of the show: If you collapse time, you can better understand what it means to live a life inherently influenced by where you have been and where you are going. What has happened in the past will only be relived if it informs the present, a fact which also drives the majority of the show’s major twists.
I also love this format because it is an interesting perspective on how people influence our lives. When trying to answer the questions of what makes us “us,” we often turn to memories of the time we have spent with the people we love and the people who love us. All at once, these people, whether they are a parent, a friend or a significant other, are present at every age you have known them.
Likewise, the show only divulges defining moments in characters’ lives if it informs what is happening in the modern day, and part of the fun of the show is learning more about these complex, inherently flawed yet endearing characters. The structure could easily fall victim to convolution, yet “This Is Us” manages to create an intimate series of portraits and seamlessly sew them together.
What I love most about this show is simply how refreshing it is. Amongst the cynicism common to “Game of Thrones” and “Mr. Robot” (shows I do admittedly adore), it is nice to have a drama that veers more towards hope than contempt.
Amongst the current political climate as well as everyday stress, I think we all need a show that promises that yes, sometimes you will lose, but the wins make life worth living. It may be a cheesy stance, but it’s one that I have chosen to embrace.
Basically, “This Is Us” has managed to live up to its hype. If you are in need of a good cry instead of a cheap one, “This Is Us” should definitely be on your watch list. And yes, your emotions will be manipulated, but it will be worth it.