'This Is Us': The Ties Between Family (Biological, Chosen, Found) Resonate From the Start
This Is Us offers a pilot episode full of warmth and nuance, with enough edge to keep it from being maudlin.
This Is UsAirtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Justin Hartley
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "Pilot"
Air date: 2016-09-20
Before This Is Us premiered, it had already made history. The trailer for the NBC show had been watched by more people than any other television trailer in history, topping the viewing figures of such blockbusters as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters. This is a pretty astonishing feat, especially considering that the cast is well-known, but hardly A-list, and the subject matter doesn't scream appointment viewing.
Tellingly, according to Deadline, the trailer made the most impact on Facebook, meaning that it was shared among friends and achieved good word of mouth, possibly because it's exactly the kind of show that you'd watch with friends and family; it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking it. Usually when a show tries to appeal to everybody it ends up pleasing nobody, but This Is Us is a genuine all-rounder, a real delight. In its first episode, it proves itself to be smart, sweet, moving, and complex, with enough edge to cut through any of the elements that might feel maudlin.
The pilot opens up with Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) partaking in his birthday tradition of a striptease, a tradition that Jack insists on honoring despite the fact that Rebecca looks as if she's minutes away from giving birth to triplets. True enough, and conveniently for the narrative, Rebecca's water breaks and they have to stop their amorous pursuits to rush to the hospital.
One of the most impressive aspects of the episode is just how quickly it establishes the loving, comfortable dynamic between Jack and Rebecca. They’re instantly believable as a couple, and the chemistry between Ventimiglia and Moore really feels like something special; they provide the viewer with a direct point of emotional contact in a short amount of time. The visual style of this opening is purposefully bland, for reasons that will become clear, but it's beautifully lit in a way that brings to mind the family dramas of the '90s peak-network heyday; it could be inserted into an episode of Party of Five or Thirtysomething without seeming out of place. This lack of era-specificity is essential to selling the big twist that was advertised so heavily before the show premiered without forcing the show to tip its hat too quickly.
Next, the audience is introduced to Kate (Chrissy Metz) as she looks at a birthday cake in her refrigerator. It has a post-it on it saying "do not dare eat this before the party", as the camera pans out it reveals that all the food has notes on it with similar warnings and admonishments. It might sound cheesy on the page -- and it is, a little -- but it also sets up two things very adroitly; it's also Kate’s birthday and she struggles with eating.
This sequence has a very different look and feel from the one that preceded it. Kate's milieu is one of breezy, modern day California, a shift that doesn't sound radical, but it's enough of a visual departure that the pilot develops a specific texture. Kate walks away from the food and prepares herself to step on the scales. A lot of media attention has been directed at the show for its depiction of a plus-sized protagonist, which it does mostly beautifully, but Chrissy Metz deserves a lot of the credit. Allowing a character to be overweight without that overweight-ness being their defining feature is always going to be a balancing act. Metz does it well, showing that Kate has internalized the issues, fears, and considerations of a larger person without losing her wit, aspirations, or personality.
In keeping with the shifting tones, characters, and color schemes of the show, the narrative then moves to a stereotypical Wall Street office, and the cinematography is drained of most of its color except blue. Randall (Sterling K. Brown), an African American investment consultant, is interrupted during his work day by colleagues wishing him a happy birthday (sensing a pattern?) Brown nails the mix of enthusiasm and wariness that'll come to characterize Randall throughout the rest of the show.
By establishing the interconnectedness of these characters through their shared birthdays this early on -- and there’s one more protagonist to go -- the pilot comes precariously close to feeling heavy handed. In an attempt to chase an immediate hook and cement a mystery at the heart of the show, This Is Us loses some of the subtlety that makes the later episodes such treats. It's understandable that the show's creator Dan Fogleman would want to establish the premise as quickly as possible, but it's not that revealing of what the show becomes and muddies the more intimate details of the character portraits.
Kevin (Justin Hartley), the star of a critically lambasted but financial successful network sitcom called The Manny, lies on his bed whilst two women try to entice him into a threesome. He's turning 36, and experiencing somewhat of an existential crisis; he isn't proud of his career, finds little pleasure in the accouterments of his wealthy lifestyle, and worries about never finding a meaningful connection with a partner. By virtue of the fact that Kevin's a wealthy, attractive sitcom star, he's automatically the hardest to empathize with, and his internal dilemma is the least clearly defined by Fogelman's script.
It isn't much of a new story -- the man who's been trapped by his own success -- but Hartley is an inherently likable actor and brings some actual depth to Kevin's crisis of confidence. As he looks into the distance, at no point looking at the two beautiful models vying for his attention, the viewer gets a sneak peek into the temperamental emotional state that'll serve to make Kevin a more layered character than he first appears. Compared to Jack, Rebecca, Kate, and Randall, though, it's a less compelling introduction; however, after Kate slips on some scales and hurts her ankle, the show reveals the first ace up its sleeve -- she’s Kevin's twin sister -- and he rushes to help her. Hartley and Metz have significant and believable sibling chemistry (I'll say every member of this cast has chemistry, but it's true!) and they make a credible connection in an instant.
We learn that Rebecca's pregnancy is highly risky because she's having triplets and has preexisting health issues. To make matters worse, the surgeon that she'd been expecting to take charge of the delivery is unavailable, and has been replaced by the considerably older Doctor K (Gerald McRaney). This, understandably, upsets Rebecca and Jack, as they worry that the new doctor won't know about the intricacies of her medical condition, but he proves to be the exact mix of wise, smart, and invested that they need.
McRaney is pitch-perfect in the role, bringing with him a huge amount of warmth and, later, a quiet heartbreak that makes the shows best sequences sing. It's a performance that seems particularly well calibrated to this genre and tone; authoritative and paternal. As Rebecca begins to give birth, Dr. K. expresses his fear that one of the babies won't survive, and trying to save them all may result in all of them dying. Jack argues that his birthday is lucky, that they have three cribs, his mother has knitted three playsuits, and he has faith that everything will work out. Ventimiglia delivers the monologue with passion and pain, making the most of the meatiest role, but Moore and McRaney do very good work too, shifting from frightened to comforted in a way that is realistic and meaningful.
The scene switches to Kevin, not known for his acting, nailing an emotional sequence between his character and his estranged father, played by Alan Thicke. The audience is shocked at Kevin's talent, but the father-son confrontation serves as a shift in tone that the sitcom audience doesn't like. They're asked to film it again with more physical comedy schtick and less resonance, but Kevin, buoyed by his newfound skills, screams at the staff, the studio audience, and his co-star, mad that they resist anything that feels authentic and meaningful.
He storms out and rushes to a party to enjoy his birthday, free from the shackles of The Manny. It's no coincidence that Kevin can plumb new emotional depths when the sitcom narrative becomes about a son and a father: it's three distinct, but interconnected, layers of narrative that bring real weight to his storyline. It's a smart choice to provide Kevin with more and more personality traits for the audience to hang their hat on, and helps garner at least some sympathy from the audience.
Meanwhile, Kate is at an overeater anonymous meeting, in which she reveals the heartbreaking journey she's had with her own weight, and meets the witty, persistent Toby (Chris Sullivan), who instantly begins courting her. Tiffany Little Canfield, the casting director for This Is Us, clearly has a real eye for pairing actors; Metz and Sullivan are swoon-worthy from the get go. She's guarded and witty, and he's big hearted and goofy; a dynamic which, like almost everything in this episode, is genuinely lovely. Neither are stereotypes and even though their meeting is somewhat contrived (it's the exact premise of the canceled CBS sitcom Mike and Molly) it enables them to have a shared history and reveals interesting cracks in their defense mechanisms. The dialogue doesn't feel forced, it’s honest about the problems of two people recovering from eating disorders who may want to date, and it never loses the loose comedic beats that make them a funny and fun match. They have a date that feels like a scene from the kind of romantic comedy that they don’t make any more, which is interrupted by a drunken Kevin recovering from his melt-down on-set.
At the same time, spurred on by his birthday and feeling that there’s something stopping him from living the exact life he wants, Randall, left as a newborn baby on the doorsteps of a fire station and nevering making contact with his biological parents, decides that he’s going to use the day to find his biological father. In keeping with the swift pacing of the pilot, the audience learns that Randall is a devoted husband and father within a few expositional moments, none of which feel laden, and then the narrative digs into his search.
Despite his wife Susan's (Susan Kelechi Watson) protests, he meets with his father William (Ron Cephas Jones), who's dying of cancer and living in a small apartment in a bad part of town. This whole sequence is beautifully fine-tuned; Randall admonishes, seeks approval, works himself up, and calms himself down in fast and unexpected ways. It feels human and humane, the result of a writer who has spent a significant amount of time working out the intricate details of a son meeting his father for the first time. Cephas Jones brings a steadiness to the show, the quiet contemplation of a man who’s looking back at a life that’s been so different from the one he would have chosen for himself. His performance is muted in a way that could have read as low energy, but Cephas Jones and Brown have such a handle on the material that even the silences between them make an impact. Shocked at how ill Williams is, Randall invites him to stay at his house.
"Pilot" reaches its emotional crescendo as Jack tries to process the information that only two of the babies survived. Rebecca is medically sound but emotionally drained; there's no longer any space for Jack to rouse the cavalry, no more big speeches that he can make. He sits in the hospital corridor and Ventimiglia looks like he has been through a few rounds in the boxing ring. Dr. K comes to comfort him and the show makes it clear (as if it hadn’t already) that it's something special.
None of the emotions are overplayed. The pain of the scenario isn't washed away with schmaltz, but nor is it presented as something that threatens to derail the proceedings. It's sweet and sad and devastating and a little bit funny as Dr. K admits that he has spent his whole career delivering babies to try and feel the hole that was left in his heart when his baby died. It's genuinely effective and affecting, and leads to the much publicized and discussed twist.
The scenes between Jack and Rebecca are set in the late '70s, Kate and Kevin are their twins (so named after the doctor who delivered them), and Randall is taken to the hospital on the same day after being abandoned. In the midst of their grief, they decide to adopt Randall, making up "The Big Three". Through the mist of tragedy a new, unexpected, extraordinary family is made. It makes sense that This Is Us is set in two (and in subsequent episodes, three) time frames; it feels like a show that stitches together all the best parts of dramas from the past with the diversity and complexity of the current televisual landscape. It's somewhat of a Frankenstein’s Monster -- a little bit of Picket Fences, a little Party of Five, some Thirtysomething, dashes of Once and Again, touches of Gilmore Girls -- but the stitches are never visible. "Pilot" is a touching, elegant and surprising tribute to the trials and tribulations of family life. This Is Us is the only true hit of the season and from the stellar first episode, it's easy to see why.