‘This Is Us’ Is Good if You Like Being Forced to Ugly Cry
Half of you will hate This Is Us, NBC’s unabashed new tearjerker. Half of you will relish every single tear. Here’s our take on one of the most talked about—and polarizing—new shows.
NBC really wants you to watch Cry, Goddammit!: The Series. Photos of a teary Mandy Moore giving birth have been plastered on every bus and billboard in eyesight, while commercials for the series aired nearly as often as Katie Ledecky won medals during the Rio Olympics.
This Is Us—referred to among those in personal circles as “oh yeah that Mandy Moore show with Jess from the Gilmore Girls that looks sad”—finally unfurls after months of ubiquity on Tuesday night, and, honestly, no TV series this fall is easier to recommend. Or to advise against. It all depends on who you are.
The show is the rare one to turn out exactly as it’s marketed. This Is Us is a tearjerker—as in, its writers might as well be literally crawling out of your television and squirting a lime into your eyes.
It’s a heartwarming family drama that invites comparisons to NBC’s Parenthood—the first signal of whether you’ll love or loathe this show—with a cast of people you can’t help but like: the aforementioned Moore and Gilmore Girls hunk (Milo Ventimiglia), as well as recent Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley as a hottie with a heart of gold, and breakout Chrissy Metz.
The premiere features a series of individual storylines that, as teased in the opening seconds, might be connected. “This is a fact: According to Wikipedia, the average human being shares his or her birthday with over 18 million other human beings,” the title card reads. “There is no evidence that sharing the same birthday creates any type of behavioral link between those people. If there is…Wikipedia hasn’t discovered it for us yet.”
Indeed, it is everyone’s birthday.
We meet Jack (Ventimiglia), first through his beautiful bum and then scruffy face. He’s marking the occasion in his birthday suit. As is tradition, his wife, Rebecca (Moore), is giving him a birthday lapdance—only this year she’s seven months pregnant with triplets. Just as things get hot and heavy, Rebecca goes into labor. Three more birthdays! The babies are six weeks early, though, which explains the capital-S stress on Moore’s face in all those inescapable promos.
It’s also Kate’s birthday. Kate (Metz), is 36 and morbidly obese. “Do not dare eat this cake before your party,” she writes on a Post-It note stuck on her birthday cake. “Seriously, what’s wrong with you?” reads a second note, when she rips off the first one in an attempt to absolve guilt while she grabs a piece.
Frustrated that she’s allowed another year to pass without solving her weight problem, she goes to step on the scale, but falls off. Her twin brother, Kevin (Hartley) arrives to help her nurse her ankle…and her shame. “How the hell did I get here?” she asks him.
Kevin has different body issues, in that his entire worth is reduced to his killer body. He’s the lead of a tragically bad multi-cam sitcom called The Manny, in which he’s pretty much contractually obligated to film each scene shirtless, a lack of creative fulfillment that preoccupies him even as two hot fans try to seduce him into a threesome.
“I know you care about the character,” he’s told when he complains to the showrunner about being objectified. “I also know you’re a 30-something-year-old actor whose biggest previous role was a three-episode arc on Nashville. So say the line or find another job. Because trust me when I say I’ll have you replaced by Ryan Gosling, Ryan Phillippe, Ryan Reynolds, or any other handsome Ryan by the time you get to your car. Believe me.” Heh.
And then there’s Randall (Sterling K. Brown). Yep, it’s his birthday, too. He’s spending it confronting his biological father who, 36 years before, dropped him on the steps of a fire house never to be seen again, “probably because he couldn’t think of anything else more cliché,” Randall quips.
He shows up at his father’s door step with the intention to tell him off—and does: “I came here today so I could look you in the eye, say that to you, and then get back in my fancy-ass car and finally prove to myself, and to you, and to my family that loves me that I didn’t need a thing from you, even after I knew who you were.”
But he also ends up inviting him back to his home to meet his grandkids. “Everything I want to say or do with this man I do the opposite,” Randall tells his wife. “It’s like a bad sitcom. Like The Manny.” (Another hint that this universe is connected.)
It’s a lot of exposition, sure, but it goes by breezily. The scenes are all incredibly short, packing emotional jabs in rapid sequence all of which, after an hour of using your heart as a punching bag, leaves its intended bruise.
Through it all, the lilting sound of Sufjan Stevens’ voice and the soft tinkling of an acoustic guitar fades in and out, almost like the show is one elongated musical montage. You know when it’s time to cry because the guitar strikes up again, plucking at your heart strings until, at the end of the episode, your aorta is spaghetti and you’re on the floor in the fetal position drowning in the pile of your tears.
I know people who see commercials for this show and want to hurl large objects at the TV screen in a blind rage. I know others who are weepy by the time the first seconds of the inspo-montage begins. (These people can co-exist peacefully. I have removed possible projectiles from my boyfriend’s hand as he dabs my tears during some of these commercials.)
Rare is there a TV show so easy to determine whether or not it is “for you” than This Is Us. Yes, the irony: This Is Us is NOT for all of us.
But the reason why it earns an endorsement beyond all this talk of it as a weepie—an often exploitative genre that often merits a critical pan—is because the emotional manipulation is rooted in authenticity and real humanity.
The brevity of the scenes means that creator Dan Fogelman and the sprawling cast of actors are tasked with finding big energy in small moments in life. The characters’ goals and desires—whether it’s to be good parents to healthy newborns or finally shed the weight—are so acutely realized that there seems to be more joy in their triumphs than there is sadness in their setbacks, something you wouldn’t expect based on the sappiness of the trailer.
Brown, as you’d expect after watching him as Chris Darden in The People V. O.J. Simpson, is magnetic as the pendulum swings back and forth between how Randall wants to treat his father—revenge swear at him, or embrace him as part of the family.
Moore and Ventimiglia are as pleasantly appealing as you expect them to be. Hartley plays the goofy beefcake with depth underneath those abs well, especially while delivering a searing indictment of crappy network laughtrack sitcoms—a narrative move that’s a bit cheeky in a pilot being sent to critics to review.
But it’s Kate’s storyline that is the trickiest, demanding the most sensitivity. Storylines that treat overweight characters as actual humans are rare enough as is, and it’s a feat that This Is Us, at least in the pilot, manages to make Kate’s weight a major plot line with believable humor and seriousness that skirts fat jokes and exploitation. Metz does wonderful work here toeing that fine line.
There’s a lack of cynicism that permeates the show, which is all the more interesting, even daring, in the face of the cynicism with which many people are viewing this show.
And you know what? A Kleenex-endorsed family drama is refreshing in a fall TV lineup booming with series you can’t help but feel like you’ve seen before. And with so many reboots and remakes, we often literally have.
The sheer level of saccharinity here would be deplorable had NBC not leaned into it so unabashedly. Hell, there’s even a “when life give you lemons…” line of dialogue that would make you cringe were it not so glorious in its sheer corniness. More, the line ends up being the catalyst for the show’s spoilerfic plot twist. We won’t reveal exactly what that is here. Who are we deprive you of more tears?
Everything on This Is Us is softly lit and seemed to be put through some sort of sepia Instagram filter and at times, such as said lemonade monologue, the whole thing can come off as a bit much. But at time when special effects and confusing sci-fi plots and blood and gore and Game of Thrones-level scale—Time travel! Zombies! Kevin James!—This Is Us is banking on emotional fireworks setting it apart, opting for grandiosity in the heart rather than the visuals.
If you’re rolling your eyes at that, don’t watch. And that’s OK. Meanwhile our eyes haven't stopped streaming with tears ever since.