THE SHOW “This Is Us”
WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC/4
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Life plays out in unexpected ways. Take, for example, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who is very pregnant, and the father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who is very nervous. What unexpected ways is it about to take for them, and their unborn child? The doctor in the delivery room (Gerald McRaney) is about to tell them. What about Laurie (Jill Johnson) who’s fighting weight problems? Her brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley) is an actor on a hot sitcom who questions the meaning of his life, career and the terrible lines that his miserable director on “The Manny Show” makes him say. Meanwhile, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) would appear to have it all — big job, beautiful family — except that life dealt him a blow, too.
This show is created by veteran movie writer Dan Fogelman (“Crazy, Stupid Love”), who’s also launching the Fox newcomer, “Pitch.”
MY SAY Mawkishness beckons, mawkishness tempts, then mawkishness finally conquers and nearly overwhelms the pilot of “This Is Us,” if not quite the promise of this very promising series.
That sentimentality would dance the dance on “This Is Us” is indicated in the series’ name, premise, opening seconds — with Sufjan Stevens’ “Death with Dignity” — and finally, when those kindly, patriarchal eyes of McRaney’s character water over. You, on cue, are expected to tear up as well.
At least no one was shot, blown up or dismembered in the pilot, which tends to happen with alarming frequency on NBC dramas. There’s a sweetness to “This Is Us,” along with a solid core of optimism. Maybe in this election season of our discontent, the country — or at least a few viewers — are looking for exactly that.
“This Is Us” explains at outset that 18 million people share birthdays but — to allay any concern — this isn’t one of those series that will mystically demonstrate the interconnectedness of them all, like some variation of Tim Kring’s “Touch,” or (for a really out-there comparison), the Wachowskis’ “Sense8.” Instead, it’s about the interconnectedness of these specific characters — each of whom are 36 and share birthdays — through time and space. How are individual lives bound in both of those dimensions, and what happens — dramatically, emotionally — to those lives when the artifices of time and space are stripped away? That’s the genuinely compelling premise of “This Is Us.”
Or at least I think it is. I could be — and reserve the right to be — completely wrong. In fact, what Fogelman does emphatically want is to elicit a genuine emotional response in both his characters and viewers, and pull them all a little closer to what’s really important in life — their beating hearts.
Kevin’s “Manny” storyline strongly hints at this objective. What is commercial television but a force designed to kill our time, blunt our senses and get us to buy stuff? What, then by association is Kevin (or “This Is Us”)? In one pivotal scene, the show deftly distances both itself and Kevin from the indictment when — no spoilers — “This Is Us” becomes not just another commercial television show killing time and blunting senses. Instead, “This Is Us” becomes about us.
The pilot does overplay the melodrama, but that was probably necessary to get viewers to buy into the crucial final scene, which is both a twist and key to the entire series. Watch that scene and feel a sharp, emotional jolt — or watch and feel your inner snark welling up. Your reaction will determine whether you come back for a second look.
My hunch: Most people will come back.
BOTTOM LINE Saccharine by jaded prime-time standards, this show still just might be the kind of sentiment lots of viewers crave at the moment.