The fall TV season is barely a month old, but it’s already official: This Is Us is the biggest, fattest, most Kleenex-annihilating hit of 2016. NBC’s new drama established its dominance by holding on to its already-impressive premiere ratings even after moving into a new time slot for its third installment. Now, it sits in second behind CBS’s Bull in overall viewers, but it’s beating Michael Weatherly’s smug charm and even its own lead-in — The Voice, itself a force to be reckoned with — in the 18–49 demographic. Translation: Even DVR-happy millennials are showing up in greater numbers for This Is Us than for virtually anything else on TV.
In another world, this would be cause for celebration. On a micro level, it vindicates the Peacock’s measured approach to its fall lineup, offering just three new series to ABC’s five and CBS’s six. On a macro level, This Is Us is proof that you don’t need lowest-common-denominator jokes or Shonda-level operatics to build an audience. Grown-ups and their grown-up problems are enough of a draw.
But this is not that world, and we’re not here to celebrate. Because This Is Us is also dishonest smarm.
It starts with the pilot, which begins with a completely preposterous epigraph so disconnected from the series it borders on the deceitful. “This is a fact,” it begins. “According to Wikipedia, the average human being shares his or her birthday with over 18 million other human beings. There is no evidence that sharing the same birthday creates any type of behavioral link between those people. If there is … Wikipedia hasn’t discovered it for us yet.” That Wikipedia is the most sophisticated source of data and/or research this show could come up with speaks to the depth of what follows.
This Is Us sticks with this premise — the cosmic interconnectedness of people who just so happen to have the same birthday — for a grand total of 35 minutes. Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) rush to the hospital to deliver their triplets. It’s Jack’s birthday! Randall (Sterling K. Brown) tracks down his birth father after years of searching. It’s his birthday, too! Kevin (Justin Hartley) reaches the end of his fuse while his twin sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), commits to a weight-loss support group on — what else? — their birthday. A strange grab bag of story lines, but, sure, it might be intriguing to watch them come together over the course of a season.
And then we learn that Jack and Rebecca’s narrative actually takes place in the 1970s, Kate and Kevin are their biological children, and Randall is their adopted triplet, taken in after Rebecca’s third baby died in childbirth. That inexplicable “behavioral link” between people that might speak to some universal constant of the human condition? As it turns out, it’s supremely explicable. Of course these people share a connection — they’re related! This isn’t a grand exploration of the forces that unite us in spite of our differences. It’s a plain-vanilla family drama.
Credit where it’s due: Disguising an utterly average blueprint for a series as something much more ambitious is a genius marketing move. But it’s an enormously frustrating creative decision. This Is Us takes the defining characteristic of the entire show, the basic fact everything else in the series is built upon, and presents it as a dramatic “twist.” Doing so bulletproofed the show against bad reviews for at least a week (the “twist,” not the flimsiness of characters and plots, is the big story) and created an artificial, completely unearned sense of surprise.
If this unshocking-shocker device had stopped with the pilot, it’d be irritating but by no means critical. Instead, it carries over into the rest of the series. The second episode presents another utterly quotidian aspect of the show’s baseline reality as a last-minute game changer. (Sometimes married people get divorced! Sometimes divorced people remarry within their social circle! Are you reaching for your smelling salts yet?) The third tones down the melodrama some but still indicates that an overreliance on not-that-consequential reveals is here to stay.
Worse yet, the twists are just one arm of an overall strategy for luring in viewers that’s equally disingenuous: substituting easy, short-term injections of sentiment for the harder, long-term qualities that inspire real investment. Absent thus far are three-dimensional characters, or meaningful conflict. In their place are teary-eyed speeches from folksy doctors and supportive wives and well-meaning parents. This Is Us seems terrified of giving us any reason to dislike any of its characters: Randall’s birth father may still be using drugs … but really, he’s just going to take care of his cat because he’s a simple man with a simple life. Kevin may be subconsciously sabotaging his twin sister’s personal life to keep her around … but he has an epiphany no self-centered actor would ever have and tells her to follow her dreams. (Keep in mind that not 20 minutes earlier, he’d simply assumed she’d move to New York after he made that decision for the both of them.) It’s all slickly gratifying surface, with nothing rougher or more complex to grab onto.
This Is Us is a clear attempt to fill the tearjerker gap that formed when Jason Katims left NBC to create CBS’s Pure Genius and executive-produce The Path (also known as General Hospital: Peter Thiel Edition and We Swear It’s Not Scientology, respectively). But This Is Us seems unaware that Friday Night Lights and Parenthood weren’t built in a day. Those shows were designed with real empathy and intelligence, crafting actual people with actual flaws that occasionally put them on opposite sides of actual issues. That end result and the emotional response it inspires takes time, as FNL’s marginal ratings attest, or at the very least care. The balance between sustainability and instant gratification is difficult but not impossible to strike. This Is Us doesn’t even bother to try, taking shortcut after shortcut to a destination that’s long on awwws but short on awe.
Commercially, of course, this doesn’t matter — to NBC, a hit is a hit is a hit, and whatever This Is Us is doing is working more than well enough for ratings. But creatively, This Is Us is floundering, and there’s a distinct possibility that’ll show up in the numbers sooner rather than later. The problem with cheap tricks is that they tend to run out. In the meantime, This Is Us continues to reach for emotional heights without laying a proper foundation. Treacle is fine as long as there’s something to spread it on top of. This Is Us seems content to remain empty calories.