This Is Us’s cry-inducing powers are so strong that it managed to wring tears out of sneakers and football, two things we couldn’t care less about and yet, Tuesday night, found ourselves practically weeping over.
At this point, it might be reductive or even lazy to make jokes about how This Is Us pummels the heart like Muhammad Ali on a speed bag, or how millions tune in with the express craven desire to sob uncontrollably at the Pearson family—to the extent that tuning in for the lead character’s death was an event on par with literally the Super Bowl, which it aired after.
But the season three premiere of NBC’s crown-jewel drama series used that reputation and expectation to prove why it is not only popular, but broadcast TV’s best drama, worthy of being in the same conversation as the best series on TV as a whole.
It’s a show that, for all the sadness, is a pleasure to watch as it enters its third season. It has a strong sense of its identity, why people are tuning in, and it delivers that without pandering or patronizing. That’s a hard thing to do, and, for all the sledgehammer emotional twists the show is known for, proves it delicately.
This week will see three different drama series attempt to capitalize on This Is Us’s success by replicating it, but with the fatal mistake of thinking running up to viewers’ tear ducts with a vacuum hose equates to quality emotional storytelling. It’s a hard thing that This Is Us does, making life’s small moments seem operatic and its most painful catastrophes seem familiar, all while remembering that laughter and love are as powerful in a narrative as tragedy and heartache.
The series manipulates emotions with the same meticulousness as a sitcom might set up jokes or an epic stage its most dramatic climaxes. That’s annoying to many people, which is fair, and why when This Is Us makes a misstep it is so monumentally hard to watch.
There were moments like that in Tuesday night’s premiere, but, as a whole, it set up a season that will keep delivering the brand of drama that audiences have come to expect: sweeping romance, wrenching heartbreak, and the beauty in life’s most mundane; a show in which everyone is constantly feeling in huge, unexplainable ways, yet somehow always have the perfect speeches at the ready to articulate it.
It’s the Big Three’s 38th birthday, meaning exactly two years have passed since we first met Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown).
Kevin is navigating the beginnings of a relationship with Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) cousin, Zoe (Melanie Liburd). The two had been sneaking around since meeting at Kate’s wedding, but Beth’s on to them.
Randall makes her swear on Oprah that she won’t confront them about it and cause a scene, but naturally she does. He knew she would. “I don’t know how you’re going to make this right with Oprah,” he teases. “I made a donation to her foundation,” Beth says, with Watson proving in yet another episode why she’s the most underrated supporting actress on TV. It turns out that her anger over Kevin and Zoe connecting isn’t because she’s protecting her cousin, but her brother-in-law. A twist! The first big “aww…” of the episode.
Continuing what has been the strongest storyline of the series, Randall and Beth want to adopt their foster child, Deja (Lyric Ross). Randall gives a rehearsed, corny speech about how, as an adopted person himself, he understands how the choice might be hard for Deja. She responds with a frankness about what her childhood has felt like, her future will feel like, and how Randall couldn’t possibly understand. It’s a beautifully-written scene.
Deja sneaks out and you think it’s to run away, but she’s actually going to see her birth father for the first time and explain to him how great she feels to finally be valued, repeating Randall’s line that she is an “exceptional person.” Another twist! Another “aww!” She asks her father to buy Randall a pair of sneakers she wants to give him for his birthday. Major cry! Mission accomplished.
On the other coast, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) are struggling to conceive a baby. They visit an IVF doctor who tells them that because of Kate’s weight, she refuses to take them on as patients as she’d be a liability. Chrissy Metz does some phenomenal acting in that scene, and then again when she breaks down at her birthday party about her weight. “It’s like a black cloud that follows me around,” she says. “Every time I get away from it it catches up to me. I’m tired of smiling and pretending that it’s sunny out. When is the universe going to give me a damn break?”
The IVF doctor has a change of heart, but warns that there is still a 90 percent chance of failure. To boost those odds, Toby comes off his antidepressants, which were suppressing his motility. It sets up what’s meant to be a major arc this season about Toby’s depression, which, if handled responsibly and realistically, could end up being very powerful, with few shows with this reach ever confronting the reality of what crippling depression is like.
And we see Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) first date, which was to a carnival. (Of course.) The date is actually horrible, which is surprising, but they vow to see each other again because of the intense connection they make in the car when he’s saying goodnight. She accidentally brought up his time serving in the Vietnam War and the brother he lost in battle during the date, which he says is hard for him to talk about. But “you make me feel like I’m home,” he tells her, “and I’ve never really felt like that before.” Another “aww!” The extent of Jack’s implausible perfection used to be insufferable. Honestly, though, it’s more fun to just embrace it.
The episode is bookended with a little vignette about the football player who completed the legendary “Immaculate Reception,” meant as a metaphor for impossible feats occasionally working out. It was all very unnecessary and still made me cry, which is a great summation of how this show can tend to be.
As for the season two finale’s big mystery—in a time-jump forward, Randall and his daughter, Tess, are going to visit an unseen woman and they’re hesitant to do it—little was offered to settle that, hinting that this is clearly going to be this season’s exhausting, drawn-out arc.
All that said, there’s a welcome lightness to the series now that the crass teasing over Jack’s death that followed the previous seasons around like a Grim Reaper is done. That is, if you could call a season that promises to tackle abandonment, addiction, fertility struggles, and literal depression “light.” Oh, and we finally get to learn more about Jack’s time as a soldier—because, you know, this show wasn’t traumatizing enough already so now they’re bringing in the Vietnam War.
In a controversial interview in response to piss-poor reviews This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman received for his new film Life Itself—what This Is Us gets right is so hard to replicate that even its creator struggles to do it—he argued that critics unfairly dismiss his work.
“There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion,” he said. “I think that the people with the widest reach are getting increasingly cynical and vitriolic and I think there are a couple of genres and a couple of ideas that they [attack, which] doesn’t speak to not just a mainstream audience, but also a sophisticated audience.”
It’s easy to argue with much of what he said. This Is Us, for example, is well-reviewed and embraced by critics. (It was nominated for Program of the Year two years in a row by the Television Critics Association.) But the idea of cynicism and its place is interesting. This Is Us works because it lacks cynicism, but so many of its copycats, including Fogelman’s blatant play for This Is Us: The Movie with Life Itself are so inexcusably cynical in the way they set out to manipulate emotion.
On the best episodes of This Is Us, it’s the love that makes you cry, not the pain. It understands that you have to pump the heart up first in order to make it, uh, explode. (That metaphor got more gruesome than we intended…)
Lifting up an audience and also being truthful about the tribulations of life and the cruelty of issues that face so many people don’t need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they can’t be. That This Is Us gets this is why we keep going back for more. That, and, sure, we love to cry.