Monday, September 19, 2016

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'This Is Us'

NBC will premiere its new original drama series This Is Us on Tuesday, September 20 at 10/9c. following a new episode of The Voice. The drama stars Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan and Ron Cephas Jones.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its premiere episode.

This Is Us has a really engaging first episode. It shows that there doesn't need to be a big or over-the-top premise in order to succeed and be entertaining. Sometimes smaller stakes storytelling can be just as engaging and captivating to watch. There is no procedural drive in this show. There's no crazy action or outrageous stunts. It's simply a family dramedy. The core premise focuses on a group of people who all share the same birthday. It's an examination of just how different all of their lives can be despite this one similarity. It's heart-wrenching and emotional when it needs to be. There are a couple of key and very effective monologues that highlight just how dark and tragic reality can get. But there are a number of funny moments as well that really land too. Such is life. That's all this show is setting out to do. It's trying to depict the crazy and complicated emotions that compose the real world. It's not a straight-up drama or comedy. It lives in between and is great for doing so. This premiere may make you cry and it may make you laugh. Viewers will run through a full gamut of emotions. And that's very promising for the future as well as for anyone who misses Parenthood.

Of course, the first episode is largely concerned with its structure and how it can surprise the audience. There are four main stories that remain largely separated from one another. Each individual story encompasses something different as well. This Is Us is a hospital drama when it comes to married couple Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in the delivery room with triplets. This Is Us is an inside showbiz satire with Kevin (Justin Hartley) as an actor who thinks he's better than the cheesy sitcom he's on. This Is Us is a rom-com a la Mike & Molly with Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) meeting at an overeaters anonymous meeting. This Is Us is a family drama with Randall (Sterling K. Brown) meeting his biological father (Ron Cephas Jones) for the first time. All of these stories are distinct. The balance between them is so crucial and the premiere handles it flawlessly. It's an introductory setup for these characters and does quite a phenomenal job at it.

The entire cast is great. They all have the appropriate chemistry with each other and bring the exact kind of energy required for each unique storyline. Ventimiglia and Moore have things more intense than everyone else. There are complications with the pregnancy. And yet, that makes for a truly moving story - especially once Gerald McRaney gets involved as their OB/GYN. Hartley shines with his more comedic story but proves he has some solid dramatic chops as well. Brown is fresh off of a win at last night's Emmy awards for his turn on The People v. O.J. Simpson as Chris Darden. Randall is a completely different role that is equally as surprising. He has some reactions that are quite unexpected and defy explanation. And yet, it could easily lead to a return to the Emmy stage next year. Metz's story is a bit more problematic. It's a little too focused on her struggle to lose weight. Once it evolves beyond that though, she seems just as capable as the rest of the cast. I'm less sure about Sullivan though. Toby is suppose to come across as charming but instead kinda feels a little creepy. So, I am worried about that story.

There's always a sneaking suspicion that a big twist is about to happen to explain how these characters are connected behind their birthdays though. The final ten minutes of the premiere are crucial and surprising in that regard. But it's best to watch the premiere not knowing what that big twist precisely is. And yet, that makes this first episode hard to judge what the actual series is. It's concern on structure and surprise makes for a rewarding viewing experience. But that's not going to be a defining characteristic of the show in the next handful of episodes. Twists have become so common in pilots nowadays. They feel like something that needs to happen in order to fully land the hook for the viewers. It's not necessary at all. If the twist isn't going to be a defining part of the series, it's just lazy to include it in the first place. However, the twist with This Is Us is important for the series. Future episodes will look and feel differently than this premiere. So, that makes it difficult to fully grade this show. I don't know what it becomes in episodes two and three. My hopes are up considering this premiere fully worked on me - even in my second time viewing it. Perhaps it can relax and not be so focused on narrative trickery. Family dramas are a genre that need a revival in the entertainment landscape of 2016. This Is Us has a solid start. I'm really looking forward to seeing what it becomes.