First up: there are spoilers ahead. It is hard to talk about this show without revealing plotlines because… well, there’s major spoilers below. You’ve been warned.
We are three episodes into This Is Us, which Lainey has been writing about since May. The hype leading up to this show has been huge; the trailer had a bunch of tear-jerking moments, the cast is fresh but familiar, and the story centers around family, appealing to viewers with a Braverman-sized hole in their heart. Twitter has been lit with people bawling their eyes out after each episode. So why doesn’t this show punch me in the feels like it should?
I’ve watched all three episodes, some more than once, and I still struggle with a way to describe it. Stumped, I went to someone I knew would help me: Duana. And she said, “This week was the first one where I thought there was real potential as a series, and I say this as someone who really, really wants shows about families to come back -- but I find it really hard to like either Kate or Kevin, and that's not encouraging.”
Do you see why I asked her? Because this is exactly what I needed to hear. There are strong elements to This Is Us, but there are few things that suck the emotional life out of the show.
First off, the twists. There has been a “big reveal” for every episode, and if we are going to jump back and forth between timelines I expect there are more to come. The show is not subtle – there are significant physical clues left all over the place, like a sentimental necklace or a book of poetry. It feels manipulative, like the writers are going for that “gotcha!” moment every damn show.
There’s a lack of nuance all around, particularly in Jack and Rebecca’s relationship. They are not Coach and Tami, sharing a meaningful glance at the dinner table. (To be fair, who is?) But the cutesy, overly saccharine way they express themselves is a clear set up for Something Big. Jack makes promises – giant, bow-on-top promises. Whatever happens to him will be traced back to those promises and what he decided to do with them.
Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore do have great chemistry, the whole cast does. In August, Lainey wondered if this was Mandy’s time. Yes, she is certainly a star in the ensemble because she is, so far, the only character to appear in all the timelines. She struggles as a new mom, as a parent to growing kids, as a wife dealing with a husband who stays out too late and drinks too much – but we don’t know her character outside of being a wife and mother. I don’t know if we ever will. That said, Mandy is doing the best work of her career and has found her show. She deserves her shine.
And then the children. It’s kind of hard to get attached to 8-year-old versions of 36-year-olds, isn’t it? But that’s what we are expected to do every time the show jumps around in time. The flashbacks are set up with big neon signs about who these people became: Kate’s cottage cheese and cantaloupe (so 80s!) means something, the way Randall is teased means something, and Kevin not helping his brother means something. But by making the backstory so explicit, they haven’t left a lot of room for the adults to show us who they are.
Mostly this is a problem for the twins: Kevin and Kate are the weakest link. Kevin’s disillusionment reads as petulance (his meltdown was triggered by the father/son scene, not the bad writing, duh) and we are supposed to believe Kate would be a singer if she’d only lose the weight. I don’t know if that will necessarily make her a professional singer (could they have chosen a more subjective and competitive dream profession?) and I don’t like the “all your dreams would come true if only…!” idea. Kate has proven to be too smart for that. Beyond their individual issues, the twins seem to only need each other. In their relationship they get wholehearted attention and love, so it’s very hard to feel like anything is at stake for either of them.
Which brings us to Randall, who is quickly becoming the heart of the show. A lot of that is because Sterling K. Brown is so delightful to watch, but it feels like he’s been given more to do, right? Even the backstory of his name has been the most interesting sub-plot so far. The way he mutters “hi white people” under his breath is interesting. His wife and kids, the little we’ve seen, could be interesting. The tension with his mother is interesting, and so is the way he calls Miguel by name (while the children call him “grandpa”). Randall will be the one to draw everyone in – mom, Miguel the interloper, Kevin and Kate. Randall will be the person Jack was supposed to be. Which means he needs to be hosting a dinner.
We need this family, or at least The Big 3, in a room together. Have we not learned anything from Parenthood, Brothers & Sisters and Gilmore Girls? A family dinner is where every latent issue, grudge and argument will be dissected. Adult siblings will scream over one another until a parent slams their fist on the table and shouts “Enough!” and then everyone goes really quiet. That’s what This Is Us needs – more of the “us”. And a last name, what is their last name? Tell us that story over dinner and earn these tears.
This Is Us airs Tuesday night on NBC and CTV.
Attached - Chrissy Metz at The View today in New York.