‘This Is Us’ Aims for Gritty Realism But Lands in a Pile of Schmaltz

This is TV at its mushiest and most dishonest.

This is a fact: If a TV drama opens with white text on a black screen informing us of a “fact” culled from Wikipedia, be wary. “Viewers, we know you want proof that we put thought into the concept of this television show, so rest easy: We’ve Googled it.” By the end of NBC’s new drama This Is Us, which premiered last night, the laziness of the opening feels like an omen. The series is so stuffed with clichés it’s a wonder it doesn’t topple over under the weight of them all.

The pilot introduces us to four characters who are celebrating their 36th birthdays. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) accepts a cupcake from his lovely wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who is extremely pregnant with triplets. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is an unhappy actor on a network sitcom called The Manny that often requires him to remove his shirt and bare his ripped chest — while his twin sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), has struggled with her weight all her life. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) has a great job, a big house, a beautiful wife, and two young daughters. But he’s recently hired a private investigator to track down his biological father, who left him on the doorstep of a fire station when he was a baby, “probably because he couldn’t think of anything more cliché,” Randall quips.

Apparently, neither could creator and writer Dan Fogelman, who’s whipped up a sickly sweet trifle layered with platitudes and schmaltz. Let’s start with Jack, whose defining trait is that he loves his wife sooooooo much. “How could you possibly want me right now?” Rebecca asks, lying in bed with her husband. Cradling her tumescent belly, Jack coos, “In any state, my wife, you arouse me.” How noble of Jack to remain attracted to his wife even when she’s carrying his three children!

When her water breaks six weeks early, she’s horrified to discover her regular doctor’s appendix burst just an hour earlier. His replacement is the folksy old Dr. K (Gerald McRaney). When the doc tries to bring up the possibility that not all three babies will survive this very risky delivery, Jack shuts him down: “We’re walking out of this hospital with three healthy babies and one healthy wife,” he says, launching into a rousing speech in which he declares that no bad things can happen on this, the day of his birthday, “which tends to be a pretty great day in our house, a day when I get pretty lucky. So I’m gonna need everyone to believe me when I say that only good things are gonna happen today.” Dewy-faced and moony-eyed, Rebecca looks up at her husband and breathes, “I love you.”

So far, Rebecca isn’t much of a character, and unfortunately neither is Randall’s wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who’s basically a sounding board for her husband’s angst. She encourages Randall to track down his father, William, played by Ron Cephas Jones; when he does, he launches into yet another maudlin speech in which he berates the man for abandoning him and flaunts his success. Pointing out his expensive car, he tells William, “I bought it for cash because I felt like it. And because I can do stuff like that.” But Fogelman’s script quickly suppresses the conflict: When he’s finished, William invites him up to his apartment, and Randall sheepishly accepts, later bringing him home to meet his daughters.

Fogelman manages to cram one more grandiose speech into the pilot, delivered by Kevin on the set of The Manny. After performing a heartfelt scene to stirring applause from the studio audience, his director asks him to do another, lighter take — shirtless. Kevin explodes, tearing the head off a baby doll and yelling at the audience for buying this crap. “Everything’s fake!” he cries before quitting in protest. “God forbid we have real emotion in this show!”

You don’t feel the same sense of outrage from the female characters on this show — the men get to be bellicose and smugly confident while the women mostly tear up or giggle. Although we don’t know much about Kate aside from the fact that she’s frustrated with her weight and decides this year she’s going to lose it, hers is so far the most promising storyline. A shot early in the pilot shows Kate from behind, wearing only underwear, as she prepares to step onto the scale — an image of vulnerability that we rarely see on network TV.

At a support group for people trying to lose weight, Kate catches the eye of Toby (Chris Sullivan), who interrupts one woman’s teary confession to poke fun at her. “Those people hate me,” he tells Kate after the meeting. “You kind of crossed the line,” she replies. When he points out that she laughed, she says, “That’s because I live across the line.” Kate and Toby are cool fat people; everyone else is just a fat loser.

Toby and Kate go out for dinner, and when he takes her back to her house, he insists she let him in. “You’re not gonna invite me in for a nightcap or a handie or something?” Picture this scene between two typically slim Hollywood actors; the man would be a boor and the woman would rightly slam the door in his face. Instead, Kate giggles and lets him in. Is it because Toby is overweight that we’re meant to assume he’s a good guy?

This Is Us continually insists that its female characters be awed by their male counterparts. When there are complications during Rebecca’s delivery, she’s wheeled off, never to be heard from again. She’s screaming in pain, but the chaos of the delivery is registered only through Jack’s overbearing concern. Later, Dr. K approaches him in the waiting room and informs him that the third baby didn’t survive. We feel the full weight of Jack’s grief as the camera studiously records his shattered expression; we even feel the weight of the doctor’s grief, as he informs Jack that he, too, lost a baby once — “The child that I lost,” he says, not “we” or, god forbid, “she.” But Rebecca’s reaction to physically losing her baby goes undocumented.

Finally, the twist: As Jack gazes at his two healthy babies in the hospital nursery, a police officer ambles by and mentions that he just dropped off a baby that was found on the doorstep of a fire station. Then he pulls out a cigarette, and we discover that Jack and Rebecca are living in the 1970s, and Kate, Kevin, and Randall are their three children — two biological, one adopted.

There is a good show here, buried under the layers of schmaltz. If you scrape off the cloying acoustic guitar that plays over way too many scenes, the cliché-ridden script, and the misogynist behavior disguised as romance, This Is Us might be the kind of raw, human drama it’s trying so hard to be. With its sepia-toned, shaky-cam aesthetic, the show is clearly aiming for gritty realism, but its vision of human struggle is far too broad and exaggerated. It wants to be realistic about such conflicts, but it also wants to end every difficult conversation and potentially dangerous situation with a smile and a wink.

This Is Us is TV at its mushiest and most dishonest. It glosses over the ugliest, scariest parts of its characters’ conflicts in favor of big speeches delivered by brash men. The show doesn’t really want to challenge its viewers or depict the kind of struggle that might not end on a note of hope and happiness, even though in reality, a lot of our struggles don’t. There’s emotion in this show, sure, but as for the kind of “real” emotion Kevin so badly wants to portray — don’t expect to find it here.

 

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.