By most measures, This Is Us is the biggest new hit on network television in quite some time. Its ratings are strong, and there’s an enormous fan base aglow with affection for this tale about a family told with a craftily fractured timeline. I watch it every week, with varying degrees of pleasure. I like to observe the marriage of Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), one of the more equally weighted partnerships in prime time. And I like to watch the way Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) like to watch the way their three children cause happy chaos in their home. But as the weeks go by and This Is Us settles in, I’m finding my pleasure diminishing in small but definite ways, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
The structure of the show — the element that initially made This Is Us so novel — is starting work against it. Creator Dan Fogelman and his writers are telling a family saga from the birth of the three kids to their adulthood. Rather than tell this chronologically, Fogelman jumps back and forth in time, so that various bits of information are frequently hinted at and only later explained. In the pilot episode, for example, it wasn’t made clear that grown-up Kate, Kevin, and Randall were all related until we were well into the hour, and the pilot’s final reveal was that Jack and Rebecca Pearson were living not in our present day but sometime during the … 1980s, I presume?
As the show has proceeded, This Is Us cherry-picks big moments in each character’s life — William (Ron Cephas Jones)’s diagnosis of fatal cancer; the existence of an ex-wife for Justin Hartley’s Kevin; the fate of Gerald McRaney’s obstetrician — and lays them out like puzzle pieces for the audience to assemble. It’s a clever narrative trick that, until now, has been used more often in literary novels such as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Williams Gaddis’s The Recognitions, than on television. (Gaddis once made a remark about his novel that can apply to This Is Us: “I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, and collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so it ends up being between the reader and the page” — or in the case of This Is Us, between the viewer and the TV show.) But in opting to zero in on the Big Moments in Life, This Is Us denies us one of the small but significant pleasures of weekly television, which are the little moments that seem like throwaways — those establishing scenes in which characters make small talk, mutter mild jokes or express little frustrations. Think of a show such as Friday Night Lights. One reason that’s a great series is that it mined a substantial amount of its drama from the small things, the constant minor mysteries and decisions — where did Coach leave his thermos before heading off to school?; who’s going to take Gracie Belle to the pediatrician? — that comprise an everyday life we recognize. (I notice, too, that a few episodes of This Is Us have been directed by Ken Olin and Timothy Busfield, who used to star in another classic small-detail, slow-burn-narrative show: thirtysomething.)
With This Is Us, every moment is a huge, significant one. It’s a show filled with crescendos, with make-or-break incidents. The pacing of this series depends on how Fogelman and company choose to assemble the puzzle that week. There’s very little of the sustained rhythm of ordinary life. As a viewer, keeping track of the timelines and following the clues is the pleasure we’re given, instead of the pleasure of seeing a long-established relationship reach a conclusion. It’s the difference between the way an entire season of Friday Night Lights could turn on whether Coach’s contract would be renewed for another high school football season versus the quick disclosure that Jack’s best friend Miguel (Jon Huertas) ends up marrying Rebecca after Jack dies… when?
I’m not saying that one kind of pleasure is inherently superior to the other: there have been plenty of moving, well-executed, well-acted moments in This Is Us thus far. I’m saying that for me, and I suspect for some others, puzzle-solving is always going to be less satisfying than following a narrative journey to a conclusion, no matter whether that conclusion is predictable or surprising. When the storytelling in This Is Us can leap anywhere in the lives of its characters, it ends up holding us at arm’s length, implicitly telling us not to get too involved here, because whatever we’re watching now is going to vanish in the next scene, and that bit of story you were getting invested in might not pay off until a couple of months down the road.
Oh, and one more thing: Could we please give Kate a storyline that does not relate to issues about her weight? I can’t think of a single subplot with this character that didn’t ultimately come down to her size. Which circles back to my original point: The big, important moments in Kate’s life all seem to center around her self-image; the show doesn’t give her the opportunity to just have a brief, light-hearted subplot about, say, deciding she wants to get really good at playing poker, or having a random encounter with a writer she admires and striking up a brief friendship with her or him. (Also: Anyone else starting to find her boyfriend Toby’s nonstop wisecracking-romantic shtick tiresome?)
As I said at the start, I like This Is Us — enough to have put it on my 2016 10 Best list. But as I continue to watch with a bit less engagement, I can imagine that the novelty of its storytelling method may have limitations. I hope Fogelman and company have thought about all this in mapping out the series, and that I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m ultimately proven wrong.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Watch clips and full episodes of This Is Us free on Yahoo View.