This Is Us **1/2
*ing: Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan, and Ron Cephas Jones
Created by Dan Fogelman
Have you ever come across something extremely popular that the whole world seems to be buzzing over but that you, despite your best efforts, simply can’t see the appeal of? That’s how I feel about This Is Us, one of the most successful newcomers of the 2016 – 2017 season, which just seems like – warning: unpopular opinion ahead – an overhyped, mediocre family drama that is getting way more love from everyone than it deserves.
To be fair, the television series does have a potentially interesting plot: a couple who are having triplets adopt another newborn after losing one of their babies during birth. But the show decides to handle this premise in the most melodramatic, saccharine, contrived way possible.
The episodes go back and forth between the past and present. The stars of the flashbacks are married couple Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore), while the focus of the present day threads is on their children, twins Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) and adopted son Randall (Sterling K. Brown).
We meet most of these characters at different ages in the various timelines the show explores, but Randall – a black adoptee in a white family who grows up to have a beautiful family of his own – is the only member of this otherwise dull clan who has been fully fleshed out and given a properly compelling storyline. His struggles with his origin, acceptance of his newly found, terminally ill biological father, and the discovery that someone kept the two apart his entire life makes his arc the most intriguing.
In contrast, hunky Kevin’s actor struggles and dating woes and overeater Kate’s weight issues aren’t nearly as interesting and make both the characters one dimensional and tiresome. The Jack and Rebecca flashbacks work in small doses, but start to feel tedious on the occasions when they sluggishly tell us something we kind of already knew.
It also doesn’t help that everything is drowning in cloying sentimentality. Emotionally resonant is one thing; emotionally manipulative is quite another – the series is nothing but the latter. This Is Us really, really wants to make its viewers cry, and is so desperate to tug at your heartstrings that it serves everything with an extra helping of schmaltz.
The drama’s writers don’t seem to be familiar with the concept of subtlety, plus their reluctance to reveal details makes the progress slow and unsatisfying.
The actors are left to make the most of the hacky writing, and some fare better than others. Ron Cephas Jones, who plays Randall’s biological father in a touching role, gives an impressive performance, as does Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Randall’s wife. It is also a good choice to have a different actor, Jermel Nakia, portray Jones’ character in flashbacks, unlike the decision to retain Mandy Moore for the present day segments and age her with awful makeup. Moore, overall, is an odd choice for the matriarch, and the writers really haven’t handled her character well in the first season. Ventimiglia, though, is likable as Jack, who is the subject of a mystery the series intends to annoyingly drag out in the hopes of retaining viewers.
But ultimately Sterling K. Brown is the MVP here and generally triumphs in his scenes, although that is partly why the show often fails – one character in an ensemble is so much stronger than the others that everyone else starts to feel woefully underdeveloped around him. It basically feels like everyone else is just a bit player who has mistakenly been given starring credits on This Is Randall … which is perhaps what the show should be; it would certainly be an improvement on This Is Us.
*Not on your life
**Hardly worth the bother
** ½Okay for a slow afternoon only
***Good enough for a look see
*** ½ Recommended viewing
**** Don’t miss it
**** ½ Almost perfect