It’s best not to take pilots as the final word on any show. Few series find their feet early on, so you generally want to watch and wait for a few episodes to see if the cast has chemistry and the story has legs. NBC’s This Is Us, however, manages to avoid many of the issues that plague drama pilots. It offers characters that you’ll almost certainly want to see more of, and despite the familiar-sounding title, the premise offers something new. Following four people with intersecting lives on their 36th birthday, this slice of life from Dan Fogelman (Crazy Stupid Love, Galavant) just might fill the hole that the dearly departed Parenthood left behind.
The strongest thread belongs to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), a couple anxiously awaiting the arrival of triplets. While many know Ventimiglia from Heroes and Gilmore Girls, This Is Us could be his star-making turn. Playing a man who has to deal with becoming a father and all that comes along with that, Ventimiglia gives the strongest performance of the episode. He and Moore (who is given less to do) have an easy chemistry right from the jump, and his heart-wrenching conversation with their doctor over the pain of being a parent is easily the highlight of the episode. (I have never been a parent and even I felt like I needed to go hug my kids after that one.)
The storylines that converge the quickest are those of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), twins who have ended up in strikingly different places in life by the time that they reach their 36th birthday. Kate is an obese woman struggling with her weight and her burgeoning relationship with Toby (Chris Sullivan), a man from her Overeaters Anonymous group. While it’s nice to see it acknowledged that plus sized people build relationships and fall in love every day (because they do), hopefully her storylines will move beyond obsessively listing the calorie counts for different food items. The relationship men and women have with their weight is an important part of life, but it isn’t the only part. Metz is effervescent in the pilot, so here’s hoping she’s given material to match her talent in upcoming episodes.
Kevin’s storyline is a little less compelling. An oft shirtless sitcom star, he’s slowly realizing that his show is crap and that he may not have the talent for more than that. It’s not that Hartley isn’t good in the role, it’s just that the “behind the scenes” stuff doesn’t feel as organic as the rest of the show. Plus, while his mid-life crisis may be real, yet another “all this money and being handsome stuff is really just empty” story feels a little rote. We get it. It’s so hard to be beautiful and successful.
Fresh off of his Emmy win, Sterling K. Brown fills out the fourth major role as Randall, a successful family man who’s haunted by not knowing his real father (Ron Cephas Jones), who left him on the steps of a fire station when he was a baby. Randall feels like so many adopted children feel: No matter how wonderful their adopted parents are, there is still a curiosity over where they originally came from. Brown plays a man possibly on the verge of a breakdown well. As he works toward getting to know his father he’s forced to confront additional revelations and deal with the strain his interest places on his wife and children. This is probably the storyline that could veer into over-the-top melodrama the easiest. Hopefully Fogelman and his writers will use a deft hand with the sensitive material.
The show’s formula might be a bit too transparent in its attempts to make viewers cry — using Sufjan Stevens and Damien Rice ballads in the same hour feels like a precise emotional attack — but it’s beautifully shot and well acted. Sometimes you just want to watch a show about nice people trying to do good, and this is that show. These characters feel like people you know and whom you’d want to actually spend time with. The 36th birthday gimmick is made clear by the end of the pilot, bringing the disparate threads together. Whether This Is Us can sustain its premise, however, remains another question. If it makes the transition from promising pilot into a reliable feel-good-but-cry-a lot family drama, NBC could have a winner on its hands.
This is Us premieres tonight, September 20, on NBC at 10pm ET.