These days it’s hard to shake the feeling that you need a good cry. At least that’s what TV networks are banking on.
In what might be the biggest boon to Kleenex stock since Terms of Endearment was on the Oscar trail, the new fall season is hell-bent on wringing every last tear out of audiences, with the major networks making blatant, shameless plays to air the next This Is Us.
That’s not surprising, given that This Is Us is the last and rare major network drama series success story. What’s also not surprising is these other series’ misguided distillation of all the elements that come together so carefully to make This Is Us work, down to one pandering mission statement: Make them cry. The new shows certainly succeed at that. But is that enough?
The series in question roll out in succession on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week, with This Is Us also premiering its third season Tuesday night to complete the emotional holocaust.
First up is NBC’s Manifest, a series that at first blush you might think sounds a lot more like Lost than a cross-generational family melodrama starring Mandy Moore. But we’d venture that, for all its genuinely intriguing sci-fi elements, it owes much more to the network’s tear-jerking hit than any polar bears, hatches, or smoke monsters. Most noticeably, it roots its emotional gut punch in a very This Is Us-ian twist: Surprise, everyone is connected!
The show opens with a family flying back to New York from a vacation. The flight is full so the airline offers money to anyone willing to be bumped to the next one. Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) takes the offer because she’s tired of her mom pressuring her to get married. Her brother, Ben (Josh Dallas), takes it because he could use the money to pay for his young son’s leukemia treatment. Cal (Jack Messina), said young son, takes it because he wants to hang out with his dad.
Their flight hits catastrophic turbulence, the kind that makes you certain you’re going to die, but miraculously steadies itself and the rest of the trip is smooth sailing. The passengers are shocked, then, that when the plane touches down, they are met by police sirens and sequestered. The reason: “You’ve all been missing, presumed dead, for five-and-a-half years.”
The ramifications are both devastating and beautiful. Their loved ones have had to mourn them and move on. In those five years, heartbreaking things have happened. Michaela and Ben’s mother passed away. Michaela’s boyfriend married someone else.
But the major emotional wallop here revolves around Cal. He has a twin sister, and she’s aged over the last five-and-a-half years, while he hasn’t grown a day. More, in the time he’s been missing there have been developments in the treatment of leukemia that could possibly cure him, which is big news given how dim his prognosis was before the flight took off.
And here’s that This Is Us twist: the doctor responsible for the advancement was on the flight with him, and sent her findings just before she lost internet connection. In the time she was missing, other doctors took up her research, to the point that now Cal might be saved. “I’m not ruling out that just maybe he came back to be saved and I came back to save him!” It’s the money line. Get to crying!
There are more sci-fi, supernatural mysteries here, chiefly trying to figure what links everyone on that plane. It’s engrossing enough, with emotional stakes powerful enough—a mother is reunited with her cancer patient son five years after she thought he died!—that you can’t help but cry. The smartest thing about the series is how it evokes the mood of This Is Us while also clearly delineating itself from the hit show. This is about a plane that goes missing, hardly the kind of everyday grounded stuff that the Pearson family deals with.
Next up is New Amsterdam, which NBC is pairing with This Is Us on Tuesday nights to really drive the point home. (That point: Weep, plebeians!)
The medical drama stars Ryan Eggold as Dr. Perfect, er, I mean Dr. Max Goodwin, the flawless nice guy birthed from the same mold that gave us Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack on The Is Us. He’s the new head of a hospital based on Manhattan’s Bellevue, a renegade who dares argue that patient care should trump profits.
Each of the patients has a heart-wrenching connection to a slew of topical issues—foster care! Ebola! Terrorism! Immigration!—and you better believe that the first episode ends with a montage set to Coldplay’s “Fix You.” (And, whoo-ee, you know I bawled like a baby at that.) As for the necessary twist and surprise connection: Dr. Perfect has cancer, and his decision to take a job at New Amsterdam is because it is the hospital where he and his sister were born, and where his sister died.
These aren’t spoilers, per se, but things revealed in the trailer. Even still, these are things that will make you cry!
But no show rips a page from the This Is Us playbook as blatantly as ABC’s A Million Little Things, which centers the drama of a sprawling interconnected on the death of a loved one and how they all deal with it. In this case, it’s the shocking suicide of a member of tight-knit group of longtime friends who live in Boston.
The four friends are really going through it when we meet them in the show’s opening scene. Eddie (David Giuntoli) is about to leave his wife. Gary (James Roday) is waiting to find out if his breast cancer relapsed. Rome (Romany Malco) is depressed and literally about to kill himself when he gets a phone call telling him that their fourth friend, John (Ron Livingston), the glue that holds them all together, has jumped off his office balcony.
No one can understand why he did it. He was the greatest guy, who at different points had saved all of their lives. In the weeks leading up to his suicide, he delivers lots of perfect speeches about what friendship means, all of which were conveniently caught on tape for the audience see and tear up over. He always said, for example, “everything happens for a reason,” from how the four of them met—while stuck in an elevator one day a decade before—to maybe, they start to rationalize, his death.
Did he die so that they could become closer and start to live their lives the way they were meant to be lived? It’s a bit of a crass leap, but the show goes there, and hopes you will, too!
We see the funeral. We see the eulogy. John’s daughter plays a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in front of the casket. You crying yet?
Look, when one TV network manages the rare feat of capturing lightning in a bottle, especially in this age when broadcast ratings are apocalyptically low, it’s inevitable for the entire industry to pillage their recycling bins and run around hoping to do the same thing. But you can’t manufacture a lightning storm, just like you can’t force your way into replicating a hit.
There is a fine line between emotional storytelling and trauma porn, and, at least in their first episodes, these three dramas wobble precariously as they negotiate that line. This Is Us works because of how purposeful and methodically it uses story to manipulate emotion, because of the audience’s desire to be coerced into that emotion, and, most importantly, because of how fully realized the characters are, so that each twist and tragic moment rings of a familiar truth.
Any dismissal of This Is Us as a pandering tearjerker ignores the fact that this is something very hard to pull off, let alone do as well as the series manages. It’s so hard to do that even This Is Us’ creator, Dan Fogelman, recently failed in spectacular fashion in attempting to recreate its formula and magic. (Film critics agree: Steer very clear of Life Itself.)
We expect that Manifest, New Amsterdam, and A Million Little Things will perform fairly well with audiences. This fall, the crying will happen. The question is how much of it will have been earned.