Is ‘This Is Us’ for You? Probably.

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

This Is Us arrives as one of the most-anticipated new network shows of the fall season — in fact, make that the only highly anticipated network show of the fall season. (Did you see the Emmys? How many times did you see a show on NBC, CBS, ABC, or Fox win a trophy?) Its trailer has been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube, and the country seems ripe for the kind of un-ironic emotionalism that This Is Us offers during a time of real-life election-year turmoil. It also features a final-moments twist I’ll do my best not to spoil.

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The show features a large cast of characters who are united by their shared birthday. Milo Ventimiglia stars as Jack, who’s turning 36 and is about to become the father of triplets, courtesy of wife Rebecca, played by Mandy Moore. In a separate storyline (or is it???), we meet twins Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), who are also celebrating 36 years on this planet (or is it this planet???). (I’m kidding. It is.) Each is unhappy: Kate is coping with being overweight; Kevin hates himself for being a huge TV star in a crappy sitcom. (All hail Alan Thicke, doing a fine cameo here.) Finally, there’s Randall (newly minted Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown), who is, indeed, turning 36 as well, and also making contact with the father who abandoned him when he was a tiny baby.

This Is Us is full of small scenes in which people discuss their anxieties and unhappiness in a way that somehow manages to avoid excessive melodrama or self-pity. Credit creator Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Crazy Stupid Love) with being able to craft scenes of people dealing with insecurities — for example, Jack and Rebecca are first-time-parents-of-multiples worriers; Kevin is going through an existential fame crisis, with hookers — loaded with highly redeeming dollops of humor and the right degree of self-awareness.

At first I thought the show might be piling in on a bit too thick when Gerald McRaney popped up as a doctor whose bedside manner is so folksy that he refers to himself as being “folksy.” But darned if that didn’t lead to a scene in which I felt the first warning sign that my tear ducts might be called in for ancillary reviewing duty. That, and the scene where Randall talks to his long-lost dad. Oh, and the scene where Kate makes herself emotionally vulnerable to a guy in her support group who asks her if she “wants to be fat-friends.”

All the acting is equally good, something you can’t say about most ensemble-cast shows. Basically, This Is Us is a well-designed emotion machine that, by the end (for the record, I freely admit I didn’t see the end-twist coming — you might, because you’re smarter than me), had me eager to see how this is all going to shake down in Episode 2. And I’ll bet I’m not alone in tuning in for that next week.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.