This Is Us is a family dramedy tailor-made to pull in viewers of Parenthood, and it somehow takes things up a notch for good measure. It’s a show that, for good or ill, depending on your preferences, is overloaded with melodrama for melodrama’s own sake, made by people who don’t realize that’s a special kind of redundant.
The show opens with an introduction to a variety of stories, without an explanation as to why we’re watching all of these people, or how they connect, except insofar as their having the same birthday.
Kevin (Justin Hartley) is an actor who isn’t happy with the gig he’s got, and is, perhaps surprisingly, coming to terms with the hollowness of his existence, and the shallow part he no longer wants to play.
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Kate (Chrissy Metz) is struggling with her weight, and her birthday is now making her wonder how she got here. She isn’t in an objectively terrible position in life otherwise, but her weight is her life, and it’s becoming unbearable.
Randall (Sterling K. Brown) has made a pretty nice life for himself, and has a very good job, but his birthday holds a special significance for him, and now it’s a weight he can no longer stand. Randall was adopted, after being abandoned at a fire station as a baby, and now he’s going to finally confront his father, William (Ron Cephas Jones).
Finally, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) has a unique birthday in store for him, because his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), is very pregnant with triplets, and one of them isn’t going to make it.
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Weaving through these stories, as we jump back and forth between them, is the obvious message about the things that crush us, what we do about it, and the universality of having unhappiness bear down on us, whoever and wherever we are. The “struggle as story” effort comes together here, much as it did in Parenthood, because the cast manages to deliver a genuineness so atypical that it almost becomes distracting, often despite a scene construction that has to be laughable on paper.
This makes for the only real struggle for viewers. The writing, in the microscopic sense, is by and large aimed at delivering the reality of a situation, and the actors give everything you could hope for. Chrissy Metz, for example, delivers far more than simply an Overeaters Anonymous stereotype, even while at Overeaters Anonymous, and manages a depth of character you don’t expect in a show that has to cover so much ground to establishment such a wide assortment of characters.
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But, the broad picture is either instantly cloying, or absolute gold. Worse, or better, the show doesn’t give much indication of where it’s headed, or why that will be interesting (beyond the shtick), which has to make you wonder what the pull is, because there are only so many dogs around to shoot.
If you’re missing Parenthood, you’ve found your new favorite show, which should be enough on its own to make this something of a hit, but if you didn’t, there isn’t much to draw you to this one (because, if you were prone to enjoying this, you would have found Parenthood).
It’s a show that has almost every “Positive” box checked, much as something like How to Get Away with Murder does. The question is only whether or not being something dripping in sap negates those positives for you, or adds one – as you must ask about being unapologetically stupid in the case of HTGAWM.