NBC's This Is Us is one of the more interesting new broadcast network shows debuting this fall, but for reasons that those of you who just watched it will understand, I didn't want to write much about it in advance. Instead, let's go straight to the pilot spoilers, coming up just as soon as your dog helps me keep my diet…
I don't know about you, but if I'm told that a story I'm about to consume has a twist in it, my brain becomes unable to do anything but look for possible twists. Fortunately, I hadn't heard the word “twist” used to describe it when I popped in the This Is Us pilot a few months ago, and thus was thunderstruck by the late revelation that the Jack and Rebecca story takes place 36 years in the past, and that the show's other main characters are their three adult children: Kate and Kevin the two surviving biological triplets, Randall adopted after being left at the fire station. Had I gone in knowing that there was a twist, I surely would have been on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, and might have noticed some of the clues Dan Fogelman planted, all of which are more obvious on a rewatch(*). The pilot's clever with its misdirection, playing a Sufjan Stevens song over our first glimpse of Jack and Rebecca, which cues us to think that the cardboard box labeled “Family Photos 75-79” is something passed down from a parent, or establishing Kevin and Kate as siblings early on so that, once you factor in race, the thought of Randall also being their brother doesn't come up.
(*) Beyond the aforementioned box of family photos, other clues to the period and true nature of the family include the way the fashions very gradually move from Jack's period-neutral denims to more overt late '70s/early '80s clothes (longer skirts, old-fashioned low-heeled pumps, the hint of a flared pant leg), the furniture and equipment in the hospital rooms, an email from Kevin in Randall's inbox with the subject “It's our birthday bro,” etc.
In hindsight, it's the Modern Family pilot with a bit of time-hopping thrown in, but it's effectively laid out so that the revelation of how everyone relates to each other – and how very much Randall's fire station story connects to what Jack and Rebecca are going through in the hospital – hit much harder than I was expecting from a pilot that had been pleasant and engaging, but unremarkable outside the predictably wonderful guest performance by Gerald McRaney(*) as the kindly obstetrician. (His delivery of the line about how the couple will be taking three babies home from the hospital, “just maybe not the way you planned,” chokes me up just thinking about it.)
(*) McRaney's a performer I didn't fully appreciate – perhaps because in my mind he would always be this guy – until he showed up on Deadwood late in its run as George Hearst and began improbably acting everyone else off the screen, but ever since, when he pops up in a show I'm watching, I can feel assured that at least he'll be great. The This Is Us producers have said that the doctor will return, which is a very smart move, even if it'll be hard to justify keeping the guy around too much in the 1980 scenes.
The question is, what is the show now that the truth is out there about exactly what it is and who all the people are? I can very easily imagine a structure where stories of the siblings as adults are paired with thematically-resonant flashbacks of their parents raising them as kids. Structurally, that's pretty sound, and the show might have freedom to bounce around in time with the Jack/Rebecca stuff if they want to, though it might require some more time in the makeup chair for Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore.
But once you take away the power of that twist being revealed, how good of a show is This Is Us? That, I'm not sure of yet.
Again, there are some excellent moments, thought most of the best ones involve McRaney doing McRaney things. It's a pleasure to watch Sterling K. Brown get an opportunity to play a lighter role (and a more prominent one in the wake of his Emmy-winning work on The People v. O.J.), and Randall's search for his birth father was the most successful of the pilot stories in hitting the overlapping comedy/drama target of this show's tonal Venn diagram. Will Mr. Hill (played by the suddenly ubiquitous Ron Cephas Jones) turn out to be genuinely dying, or will this be a hustle? Either way, it's the story I'm most interested in getting the next chapter of.
Elsewhere, the pilot had highs and lows. Rebecca barely even registers as a character (between this pilot and Pitch, it's clear Fogelman has father-child relationships on his mind at the moment). I worry that by introducing Kate in a story that's entirely about her weight (even the introduction of Toby as a love interest is weight-related), it'll be hard to move beyond that with her. And Justin Hartley proved more versatile than I was expecting as someone who mainly knew him as Green Arrow on Smallville, but the showbiz satire stuff felt very self-congratulatory: “Let's laugh at all the pablum our business puts out while we give you something of obviously higher quality!”
So there's a lot here that puts me in wait-and-see mode. But the biggest moments landed (even more on second viewing, actually), and I could use a new Parenthood in my life. (OWN's Queen Sugar is a much better and more interesting family drama overall at this point, but it's also much heavier in tone.)
What did everybody else think? Are you setting the season pass now? Did you see the twist coming, or were you surprised by it all?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org