So a few weeks ago I came out of my room and it was pretty clear that I had been crying. One of my roommates, being the nice guy that he is, decided to ask me what was wrong. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a saint. He clearly weighed the pros and cons of posing a question beforehand. I’m not a very emotional person, outwardly at least, and it was 7:00 PM on a Thursday (Usually a time for sports, or dinner, or a combination of the two in our apartment). He probably decided that the situation was abnormal enough to merit venturing into dicey, possibly emotional waters. You could see the hesitation in his eyes as he asked “Everything okay?”
I wonder what he thought I was going to say; Maybe something about a girl who had just broken my heart, or a family member had passed away. Instead, all I said was, “This Is Us is so good, dude.”
I will treasure the memory of his exaggerated eye roll for the rest of my life.
This wasn’t our first conversation about This Is Us. Over the course of our talks I tried again and again to articulate why I liked the show so much, and much to my frustration, I never quite got it right. My analysis most nights pretty much boiled down to, “It’s just so freaking good, man” in as many forms as I could think of. As a person whose normal TV analysis is quite literally thousands of words long, it was incredibly frustrating.
A few days later I was reading a review of Kong: Skull Island in which the critic deemed the movie “mindless, action-packed, fun.” The reviewer stated that the movie gets all the big moments right, but struggled with everything that took place in between*. That’s when everything clicked into place. I finally had my answer. I was very excited. My roommate was not.
This Is Us is an emotional blockbuster that swaps action spectacles for smaller, intimate emotional moments. But the show is so concerned with getting these moments exactly right that it often comes at the expense of the story as a whole.
This practice is pretty commonplace in modern blockbusters. The easiest way to think about it is to consider something like Mission: Impossible, which builds each entry in the series around whatever preposterous, jaw-dropping stunt Tom Cruise wants to tempt death with next. Do you remember the story of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol? Do you remember why Tom Cruise was on the side of the world’s tallest building? Or what took place before and after the stunt? Probably not. All of that was secondary, because Tom Cruise was running on the side of the f*%&ing world’s tallest building. 90% of the movie was more or less disposable, with one moment that took our breath away. This isn’t necessarily a problem for something like Mission: Impossible, but for any movie trying to be more than “Watch Tom Cruise cheats death again,” it can spell trouble.
What does this have to do with This Is Us? Well, everything really. (Fair Warning: If you don’t want to read spoilers, I’d stop reading now.) This Is Us builds its stories around emotional moments in the same way that Mission: Impossible movies are structured around Tom Cruise stunts. Everything the show does is in service of delivering that emotional beat, whether it be profoundly sad, unabashedly romantic, or anything in between. Whatever we are feeling before the show switches on, the primary goal is to have the audience experiencing a universal emotion once the credits roll.
Since the very beginning, This Is Us has been extraordinarily good at accomplishing this goal. At the end of the pilot, the audience is supposed to feel Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) excitement and optimism about the Pearson’s future (In other words, we’re supposed to be excited to see what happens next, which is the goal for any pilot episode). When Jack looks at the three cribs with a face of optimism and excitement about the future, we are feeling the exact same thing.
The show’s second episode, “The Big Three,” has a more complex goal: Make the audience feel like a part of the family. They want us to look at Jack and Rebecca and see our parents, and look at Kevin (Justin Hartley), Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and Kate (Chrissy Metz) and see our siblings. This kind of connection takes even the best shows at least half a season to create (And that’s if they do everything right), but This Is Us accomplished it in two episodes.
I’m sorry, but if you don’t smile during that clip it’s very possible you are dead inside. That’s not an accident either, This Is Us built up to this moment is such a way that the audience wouldn’t just sympathize with what the characters were thinking, but empathize as well. I know that’s a little vague, but don’t worry, I’ll explain.
This Is Us smartly separated the three siblings for the entirety of the show up to that point, while also putting Jack and Rebecca at odds in the flashbacks. The first episode hooked audiences by revealing that all of the characters were a part of one big, interconnected family. So when people turned on episode two, viewers expected to see the family together. But ”The Big Three” doesn’t deliver the happy family the twist promised us, at least not for the first half hour. Both the characters, and the audience, have to earn the moment.
That’s why the mini-reunion works so well, because the audience is discovering what it’s like to see the Pearson’s together at the same moment the characters are remembering that exact feeling themselves**. That kind of purposeful plotting is the difference between the audience thinking “I’m so happy” rather than “They look so happy.”
These are the types of moments This Is Us handled so well throughout its first season. A lot of the credit has to be given to the show’s pitch-perfect cast. While some of them have been let down by the writing at times (More on that in a moment), the entire ensemble is superb, top to bottom. Conservatively, 99% of This Is Us’s subject matter has the potential to become eye-roll inducing cheesy nonsense. It says a lot about the talent of performers such as Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia that the show so rarely goes down that road.
Even more of the credit has to go to the show’s structure. For most TV dramas, pulling off this kind of iconic moment each episode is pretty much impossible, if only because it takes more than an hour’s worth of set up to get it right. But the advantage of This Is Us’s multiple storylines is that while one comes to a climax, the other can be slowly developing in the background. Take this moment from “The Trip,” where Randall’s storyline delivers the episode’s showstopping moment.
That scene was the result of weeks of patient build-up, which saw Randall in both the flashbacks and in the present feeling out of place and alone. The show had been laying the groundwork for the moment since “The Pool,” a whole five episodes earlier. That patience allowed the scene to have a far greater emotional impact than if the storyline was contained in just a single episode. And while Randall’s arc was building in the background, Kate, Kevin, Rebecca and Jack each had emotional moments to distract the audience. And now that Randall and Jack have the spotlight, Kate and Kevin’s storylines slowly started building again toward their next big moments. It’s a cycle, really. One that repeats itself until, ideally, everything comes to a head in the finale. This Is Us owes everything to this structure, without it they show wouldn’t be anywhere near the success it is now (both commercially and critically).
Unfortunately, the structure does have drawbacks. Because each story has to carry the climax of an episode every few weeks, it is going to become painfully obvious which characters and plots are weaker than others. There’s a reason Randall-centric episodes are universally stronger than the rest of the show. As a character, Randall is fully formed, and the season long arc he goes through with William is carefully and purposefully plotted to the T. Every action has a clear motivation, and every emotional beat hits its mark like clockwork. The same cannot be said for Kate.
Chrissy Metz does a phenomenal job bringing Kate to life, but the show hasn’t really given her a story that didn’t circle back to her weight. It was fine at first, but got frustratingly repetitive as the season went on. From the job she got because she was not-so-subtly supposed to mentor an overweight teen, to her multi-episode experience at fat camp (*shudders*), Kate has struggled to carve out much of an identity beyond being overweight and giving good advice. The writers seemed to realize as much near the end of the season, where Kate and Toby spend time shopping around New York City and quizzing each other about their lives. But there’s still a lot of work to be done, but it can be fixed. This Is Us has plenty of these little, solvable problems, that I don’t have time to dive into, but could dramatically improve the show if fixed.
The bigger problem This Is Us is facing brings me back to Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible. Building a film franchise, or a TV show, around singular moments means that these moments have to continue to top each other. That’s why we’re about three or four movies away from Tom Cruise jumping out of the space station and skydiving back down to earth, with maybe a baby strapped to his chest or the bomb that needs to be defused. I don’t know, I’m sure they’ll think of something. The point is that the more you rely on big moments, the bigger they are have to be in order to work. Right now, it’s unclear how This Is Us plans to address this. The season finale threatened to raise the emotional stakes for each of the characters (Kate’s twist is almost cringe-worthy, but that’s for another time), making these big moments carry even more weight.
There’s an easier solution though, the show should just become less reliant on these big moments and transition into something more traditional. There’s no doubt that This Is Us has viewers hooked. It’s far and away the biggest show of the fall, and has already been renewed for two more seasons. There’s no need to keep distracting the audience with shiny objects, it’s time for the show to get the smaller moments right. That doesn’t mean get rid of the big scenes completely, but to produce entire episodes as genuinely good as the big moments. In other words, This Is Us needs to be less concerned with where these stories are headed, and focus on where they are now.
It’s not something the show isn’t capable of, either. Take “Memphis” for example. This episode got everything right, I literally can’t think of a false step. Sure, it ends with the what’s probably the show’s most emotional moment in a season packed with them, but what set the episode apart was how they got there. “Memphis” isn’t just about the big moment, it’s a complete story about a father saying goodbye to his son. Just like William taught Randall to do, the show finally stopped focusing on the end product, and gave real attention to the journey, and delivered an episode of TV that brought me to tears.
The destination is always what the audience talks about, but the journey is what sets great shows apart from good ones. From the first episode, This Is Us has been obsessed with reaching the destination, getting to the big moments that will have fans buzzing, or reaching for tissues. After one season, there’s no doubting the show’s ability to pull them off. But if This Is Us really wants to become TV’s next great show, it’s time for them to roll the windows down and just enjoy the journey.
Season 1 of This Is Us is available on Hulu and nbc.com
Season 2 is set to begin This Fall.
*I’d argue that Kong: Skull Island works very well regardless, but that’s not the point of this piece.
**That feeling is also what makes the Miguel twist sting so much. It’s not the fact they’re together, it’s that we found out we have a stepfather mere minutes after we met our family. While we’re on the subject of Miguel, that actor plays a minor character who gets eaten by a monster in Kong: Skull Island and watching it unfolds was a strangely cathartic experience. I can’t express how much I dislike Miguel.