Much like my dear friend Brian, I have not felt compelled to cover This Is Us in its debut season, though every other website on the Internet has certainly done my job for me. Every Monday, I endure several headlines screaming that “THIS WEEK’S THIS IS US WILL DESTROY YOU – SHOWRUNNERS SAY TO BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES, BUY TISSUES IN BULK, CALL YOUR FAMILIES & TAKE A WEEK OFF WORK!” On Wednesdays, after the show airs on Tuesday nights, I see new and improved headlines, blaring “THIS WEEK’S THIS IS US WAS THE SADDEST THING EVER – IT WAS WORSE THAN WHEN SKIP DIES AT THE END OF MY DOG SKIP!*“
I don’t know that I’ve never needed a show to “destroy me.” Lots of things destroy me that probably aren’t meant to destroy me, like when Lin-Manuel Miranda sang at the end of Moana or that one Subaru commercial about the dying dog completing his dog bucket list. (Yeah, I know, another sad dog joke, but I’m tearing up just thinking about that commercial.) Also, lots of shows make me cry really unexpectedly – I have cried during both America’s Next Top Model and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which I wouldn’t normally admit, but this seems like a safe space – and I’ve come to accept that, so when I started watching This Is Us when it premiered, I assumed that I would end up ugly-crying through this show so intensely that I’d have to set all Wednesdays aside to lock myself in my apartment due to unattractive puffiness and excessive sniffling.
Once again, this is a safe space (probably), so it’s time to admit that I didn’t shed a single tear during This Is Us‘ entire first season.
At first, I assumed something was wrong with me, and I honestly haven’t ruled that possibility out. “Maybe my heart has calcified and I’m jaded now and I don’t cry over things,” I thought. “Maybe I’m completely dead inside. Finally! The day has come!” But then I Googled the Bing Bong scene from Inside Out and, for good measure, cued up the final scene of Edward Scissorhands, and once I found myself prone on my couch while my confused dog tried to eat my tears, I realized that I might not be the problem. Maybe This Is Us is the problem.
The premise of the show is interesting, and I’ll absolutely give it that. We meet Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia – two veteran performers whose casting, while almost certainly a cheap attempt to cash in on millennial nostalgia for A Walk to Remember and Gilmore Girls, is successful thanks to the sheer talent of these two actors – as they’re about to have triplets, and after one baby doesn’t make it out of the womb, they take in a newly abandoned (African-American) infant left at the hospital moments before. Those kids grow up into inexplicably perfect-looking people with ridiculously nice TV homes, played (passably) by Justin Hartley as Kevin and Chrissy Metz as Kate and (the truly excellent) Sterling K. Brown as Randall. Through shifting, Lost-style timelines (say what you will about that show, but it did inspire… sorry, this is another article), the show weaves the story of both the “Big Three,” the makeshift triplets’ cutesy nickname, and Jack (Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Moore), their parents whose marriage, though based in real love, can’t necessarily survive life. Other characters, like Randall’s lovable birth father (played gorgeously by Ron Cephas-Jones) and Kate’s weirdly pushy fiancé Toby (a fat-suited Chris Sullivan) flit in and out of the show, but ultimately, we care about the Big Three and their parents and how their stories will unfold.
The first season has been full of turny little twists – Rebecca is married to her and Jack’s friend Miguel now! Also, Jack is totally dead! Kate thinks it’s her fault! Randall’s father is dying, and he’s also gay! – but the biggest enduring mystery that the show keeps teasing is exactly how Jack dies. As I just mentioned, we mostly only know that Kate thinks it’s her fault, and we know that none of the Big Three are keen to discuss it. We, as the audience, are supposed to leave each gently indie-rock-scored hour with more questions and we should, ideally, be dying to figure out the answer.
I’ve gone on at length here, so let me get to the point. The mysteries and questions and twists of This Is Us aren’t interesting enough to carry the show, but the showrunners and PR mavens behind it desperately, deeply want them to be. They want a sense of poignancy and social commentary on a show that deals with issues like body image and sexuality and family strife and a white family raising a black child, but they simply haven’t earned it. This Is Us has the veneer of a prestigious show, including the Big Issues, the sad scenes, and the powerhouse performances, but it’s still lacking the substance it really needs.
The dialogue is at best trite and at worst, treacly and actively bad. Every character speaks in terms of bald exposition, like “Why aren’t you happy to see me?” or “Tell me what’s going on!” There’s no nuance in a show that should be exclusively nuanced, mostly because everyone who has ever dealt with family drama knows that it is made up entirely of nuance. It’s remarkably bald-faced in its mission to tear-jerk and emotionally manipulate, and it seems like nobody but me has noticed, leaving me feeling like Mugatu at the end of Zoolander. Everything from the trailers to the headlines to the overall feel of each episode screams “WE’RE HERE TO MAKE YOU FEEL THINGS,” but shouldn’t a show make you feel things based on the sheer strength of its work?
Furthermore, the structure, while admittedly creative, doesn’t always work. First, on a practical note, Mandy Moore is so ageless that unless they streak her hair and make her wear those frumpy glasses, I cannot fucking tell what timeline we’re even in. Beyond that, it ends up muddling the show. It’s hard to care about Kevin’s stupid play or, worse, British girlfriend drama when I keep getting dragged back to Jack’s alcoholism during the Big Three’s childhood. It creates a whiplash effect, and again, it’s manipulative, but it doesn’t actually function.
That all said, I think what ultimately irritates me most about this show is the pretense that it’s doing something completely new and different when, ultimately, the drama created here owes its life to shows like Parenthood and the arguably far superior Friday Night Lights (I literally can’t care about Jack and Rebecca when Coach and Tami Taylor exist in this pop culture universe, you guys). Today, I was talking to a friend who does not watch This Is Us who told me they had seen a headline declaring that the finale had “done something never seen on TV.” That headline was referring to Jack and Rebecca’s blowout fight in the finale, which was… a couple fighting. Sure, it was mostly them screaming over each other unintelligibly, which I’ll freely admit was pretty realistic for a couple fighting, but I’m not going to sit here and pretend that a scene like that is revolutionizing jack shit in television. With shows like Stranger Things and Transparent and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Black Mirror and ugh I could go on doing work that actually revolutionizes television, can we drop the pretense?
I don’t actively hate This Is Us. It’s a fine show stocked with some good performances, notably by Moore, Ventimiglia, Cephas-Jones and Brown. I’m just tired of it pretending to be something it’s not. This Is Us is not the second coming of the Golden Age of television. It’s not the Messiah of primetime. It’s a family drama with a healthy amount of cheese that likes to teach lessons. It’s got some gloss, but ultimately, that’s all it is. Let’s all just treat it that way, okay?