When This Is Us debuted on NBC last fall, the buzz was inescapable. Mandy! Milo! Sterling K. Brown! So, I watched the pilot. Aside from a gratuitous (but totally welcome) opening shot of Ventimiglia’s bare bottom, everything about it turned me off. Here was another high-concept yet totally basic big-network drama destined to bomb — hard. I wrote it off and moved on, to Westworld and Insecure and other stellar new shows from prestige networks.
Then suddenly, it was everywhere. Fans were devouring reaction pieces and relishing teasers, coworkers wanted to talk about last night’s episode — no spoilers!
“This show is not something,” had been my refrain.
When I realized I was in the minority, I sat quietly while my friends and colleagues gushed, not wanting to be a killjoy. I had only seen one episode, after all, and pilots are notoriously tricky to pull off.
It wants to be sprawling, complicated, and heart wrenching — and the effort shows.
This week, I sat down for a This Is Us binge-watch. Some looked at me with sympathy in their eyes. “Get ready,” one said. “For alllll of the feels,” her expression implied. But after eight-odd episodes had washed over me, in an amber haze thick with hackneyed dialogue, contrived emotion, and Mandy Moore’s perfectly colored hair — I have to say, I felt nothing. Numb except for a sore rump — and the vague, nagging feeling that my life choices had betrayed me...again (I’m used to it).
Let me say upfront: I appreciate what the series is doing for representations of racially integrated families, middle-class Black people, and plus-size women and men. I do. And it’s important. This Is Us is the No. 1 top-rated new show in the coveted 18-49 demographic, according to Neilsen data, and has already been renewed for two more seasons. So, America is watching. Maybe, hopefully, some of them will learn to empathize with people who aren’t like them. And that’s great.
But This Is Us is not. It’s an audience-baiting hodge-podge of clichés. It wants to be sprawling, complicated, and heart wrenching — and the effort shows. After losing almost a third of a day to its whirlpool of manufactured emotional drivel, here’s what I learned.
The writing is...basic.
I am sure there is a dictionary out there whose entry for “basic” is just a page from a This Is Us script. There’s not a platitude in the English language that these writers have not embraced with abandon. The Pearson family, and most everyone they encounter, speak primarily in emotions and/or plot points.
Rebecca to her unborn kids: “I think I'm nervous about you guys meeting me.”
Randall on Thanksgiving: “Man, I am so pumped! My mom and biological father eating at the same table? How great is this?”
Even periphery characters share a certain fondness for non sequiturs:
Kevin’s Adopted Brother Randall’s Dying Father: “I just came out for some air.”
Pretty Actress Totally About To Date Kevin: “I’m waiting for my Uber.”
KABRDF: “I don’t know what that is”
PATATDK: “How does it feel to be dying?”
If I needed a good cry, I could face the calamity of my personal Gmail box, or read the latest spate of headlines from Washington.
The characters are...hyper self-aware droids who speak every feeling they have aloud in the service of revealing emotionally “shocking” plot points.
The acting is …from the school of cry-face emoji.
Look, I loved Mandy Moore in Saved. Sterling K. Brown was brilliant in The People v. O.J. Chrissy Metz is a treasure. And Milo’s mustache actually goes a long way, as does his constant shirtlessness. But one can hardly argue this is any of their best work.
Moore in particular has been praised for her portrayal of Rebecca across decades of her character’s life. Still, I would posit that more credit is due to the show’s wig and makeup departments than to Moore’s range as an actress. Just a hunch.
The music is…like life on Earth has been extinguished and John Mayer is the sole survivor.
And he’s going to croon about it, even if no one is listening.
The plot is...emotionally manipulative, as a rule.
We could start with the old “baby left on the firehouse doorstep” move, or the classic, “What happened to Toby?!” midseason cliffhanger. But let’s talk about Jack’s death. When elder Rebecca shows up at the door without him, viewers thought maybe they had just broken up. It took another episode for Kevin to casually let it drop that their dad is dead. Each of these moments is specifically calculated to elicit gasps and tears from viewers — and the headline equivalent of “squeeeee” from entertainment media.
We’ve been promised the show is playing the long game, and that some details won’t be revealed for...seasons to come. Something tells me their long game won’t be anywhere near as artfully crafted or brilliantly considered as, say, Breaking Bad ’s. No, they just want viewers to be glued to their screens for as many years as the series can ride the audience tide and crank out 18 episodes a season. There's no shame in that, but let’s not pretend the payoff will be worth it. Because...
The producers are...trolling viewers.
Every week it seems creator Dan Fogelman is out giving an exclusive interview teasing a “big reveal” in this week’s episode, all the time promising that more and more surprises lay beyond the horizon for the Pearsons.
It is, of course, the job of any creator to promote their series — but if every twist must be teased like so many breadcrumbs in the grass, aren’t we the dogs crawling around and lapping them up, begging for a treat in the form of some more cathartic sobbing? If I needed a good cry, I could face the calamity of my personal Gmail box, or read the latest spate of headlines from Washington.
I get it, maybe that’s why people watch This Is Us. In times like these, who are we to say how people choose to escape? I, for one, will be waiting patiently for The Americans to return in March — call me crazy, but a Cold War drama feels like just what the doctor ordered.
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