The pilot for This Is Us is possibly the most earnest TV show I have seen since Party of Five. It desperately wants you to feel uplifted, and mostly succeeds, thanks to an unusually strong cast. The pilot has fairly deep flaws, but strong potential to actually find something interesting and good to say. And, if nothing else, the cast makes it worthwhile.
The show follows four characters who all happen to have the same birthday. There is Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) the soon-to-be father, Kevin (Justin Hartley) the actor, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) the guy looking for his father, and Kate (Chrissy Metz) who is fat (no, seriously, her entire plotline in the episode is about how she is fat). The episode builds to a twist ending that is obvious in retrospect, but quite surprising in the moment. Which, if this was a movie would be a satisfying ending, however as the launch of TV show is fairly odd. I honestly could not even begin to tell you what episode two might be like.
Each of the individual character stories has lots of problems, but the charming and likable cast is able to mostly power through things. Which is rather good, considering the show seems dedicated to telling fairly minimalist, low stakes character stories.
The show starts with Jack, naked on his bed, as his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), is about to give him a birthday surprise. However, as she is nine months pregnant with triplets, turns pretty quickly into labor. And labor turns into complications from labor just as quickly, so Rebecca spends most of the pilot dying from childbirth while Jack spends most of the pilot looking pained. Ventimiglia gives probably the best and most compelling performance, probably because portraying manpain is his main specialty as an actor.
Kate is fat. That’s literally all there is to her segments. Okay, she goes on a date with a guy who is also fat that she met at an Over-eaters Anonymous meeting. But her entire point within the show is that she is fat and feels bad about being fat. The entire plotline is elevated by Metz’s performance who is too good for what she is being given. It’s a completely missed opportunity. This is the first time an overweight actress has been the star of a show since, I believe, Super Fun Night, and the only reason she is even in the show is that she’s the fat chick. She has to put post-it notes on her birthday cake just to shame herself into not eating it. It is such a missed opportunity to just do something different.
Randall’s dad left him at a firehouse, and he’s looking to tell him off. Brown just won an Emmy for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. So he, sort of by accident, makes this show more prestigious than it actually is. He isn’t as good here as he was in that show, and he working with a character much more erratically written. His character seemingly has wild mood swings, which I couldn’t even tell if it was supposed to be an intentional trait.
Kevin is by far the most interesting character who has the most interesting plotline. It’s also the plotline saddled with the most problems. Kevin is the star of a terrible sitcom called “The Manny” where he always has to have his shirt off and does not get to be a true artist, leading to an existential crisis when he’s about to have a threesome. Now why does Hollywood always seem use poor threesomes to prompt characters into their existential crisis? What did threesomes ever do to Hollywood? Kevin is more or less saddled with a lot of L.A. issues (as in issues that rich people living in L.A. have that no one who is not a rich person living in L.A. would ever experience, among them too many threesomes). His big problem that he is not artistically fulfilled by being the multi-millionaire star of a popular sitcom is pretty much textbook L.A. issues.
And then there is the weird subplot about how awful it is that the sitcom he is on keeps sexualizing him. I’m reasonably skeptical that the sexualization of male actors in Hollywood is a particularly pressing issue. Sexualization alone is not really a problem. Some people, and some characters are sexy, and that’s okay. The problem is that sexualization is almost always a gendered phenomena, strictly regulating itself to women, and a default phenomena where all women regardless of the role have to be sexualized. Which leads to women becoming objects. For example all those scenes in Game of Thrones where a character needed to deliver a massive exposition dump and so the show set the scene in a brothel in order to have naked women in the background. And the show itself violates its own moralizing. Remember, Milo Ventimiglia was naked in the very first scene, and it makes Justin Hartley take his shirt off as much as his fake TV show does. So, little hypocritical there, This is Us.
Luckily, Hartley is actually quite a good actor and so can carry the show through all the problems with his plotline and characterization. And the show benefits from the fact that Kevin’s storyline is the only one with actual bite. While it has some cloying sentimentality, it is much more harsh and satirical. It is no BoJack Horseman, but int the somewhat saccharine soup that is the rest of This is Us, it is a welcome change of tone.
The show is decent, and the cast is quite good. Hopefully the writing will begin to click together more and elevate to the level that the cast is at.