“I don’t know what we are. Okay? That’s the truth. I don’t know what I think we are. I just know that I like the fact that there’s a ‘we’ for us to talk about.”
That’s the kind of dialogue you can expect to find in This Is Us, the US TV series that made a huge splash Stateside with its rampant sentimentality and earnest ensemble cast. And you know what? It’s a wonderfully winning combination, as the Golden Globe and Emmy winning series more than lives up to its hype with a funny and moving tapestry of human drama.
And that’s just with its first episode, which is one of the most impressive TV pilots of recent years. The show’s premise is simple – it follows the separate lives of people who share the same birthday – but Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Dan Fogelman uses it to wind some superbly complex tapestries, which swing from amusing to emotional without the programme once losing its stride.
The birthday boys and girls are led by Randall (Sterling K Brown), a grown-up orphan who finds himself with the chance to meet his biological father, Kate (Chrissy Metz), who takes her birthday as renewed impetus to lose weight, and her brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), who’s a sitcom actor sick of shallow roles. All the while, we flash back to Jack (Gilmore Girls’ Milo Ventimiglia), whose wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), goes into labour on the day when he’s meant to be celebrating his own birthday, giving them a cute brace of triplets to raise.
You may be seeing where this is going – if not, stop now and watch the pilot before reading on.
Done that? Good. So, yes, Jack and Rebecca turn out to be the parents of our trio of kids. Except it’s not quite that straightforward: the couple actually lose one of their babies, before deciding to adopt Randall as their own. It’s par for the course for the show’s script, which has the dial permanently set to bittersweet – right on the boundary between chuckling and hugging your pillow while inhaling a tub of ice cream.
You might think such a syrupy concoction would get old, or seem contrived, as each new revelation or pointed reconciliation is accompanied by the faint sound of twee guitars, but the balance is struck with confidence and precision, always tugging at the heartstrings just enough to make you blub, but softly enough not to feel forced. The cast are a large part of that success, and over the course of Season 1’s 18 episodes, each actor is giving a chance to stretch themselves and explore new depths of their character.
Chrissy Metz’s Kate veers between self-hatred and self-esteem with a recognisably vulnerable edge – one that’s sharpened and softened by the arrival of Toby (Chris Sullivan), a love interest she finds at a weight loss group, He has no qualms about his own weight issues and encourages her to be herself, while performing the kind of extravagant gestures that verge on being slightly too enthusiastic. Their arguments sing with acceptance and sting with rejection, often at the same time.
Justin Hartley’s Kevin, meanwhile, is beautifully fragile, as he snaps on the set of The Manny (a terrible show that mostly involves him being topless and reciting catchphrases in a high-pitched voice). He finds himself attempting to prove his skills on the stage, a trajectory sold with the kind of soul that his character is desperate to demonstrate. Even Gerald McRaney’s doctor, who delivers Kate and Jack’s triplets, has his own backstory and ample opportunity to deliver meaningful monologues.
Sterling K Brown, though, emerges as the standout (in a cast full of standouts), as Randall finds himself caught between the anxiety of getting to know his dad, William (a wonderfully laidback Ron Cephas Jones), and the pressures of being a black broker in a largely white firm. It’s a performance of a man giving a performance, pretending everything’s fine to his wife and kids, even as his sense of identity and stability slowly crumbles; in a programme that builds its weight on people dispatched hard-hitting speeches, Brown’s work is superb because so much of it is unspoken. A tangential journey into his dad’s jazz-filled past, late on in the season, is a toe-tappingly good chance for both men to find their voices.
Fogleman’s trick is ensuring that every plot strand intersects with the others in ever-complicated combinations. Kate begins the show as Kevin’s PA, before they part ways, only to come colliding together at a family trip to an old cabin – when Kevin is accompanied by his selfish, stage-acting girlfriend, Olivia. William, meanwhile, is accused of loitering in Randall’s rich neighbourhood – a mistake that doesn’t happen when Kevin rocks up announced to crash on the sofa. There’s a recurring theme of outsiders becoming uneasy parts of family groups, or being welcomed with open arms – Kevin, for example, has a hugely entertaining time at a Hanukkah dinner with the family of his theatre director, Sloane.
What does that mean for his relationship with Olivia? There’s a tangled web of missed connections and inopportune timings that underlies the series’ swing between togetherness and loneliness. That boundary between blood relatives and not is most poignantly explored by Randall and Kevin, as they try to rebuild their brotherly bond (he’s never seen The Manny, but William has) and realise that they don’t really have anything in common and have never been that close.
All of these themes and ties resonate twice as much, thanks to the show’s elegant dovetailing of events with similar life lessons learned by Jack and Rebecca – and their examples and regrets make for a powerful examination of how traditions can be passed down through generations. There’s room even in the rose-tinted past for plans to go off the rails, and the warmth of knowing things will turn out ok further down the line for us to care about each person even during the most painful confrontations.
With so many feelings flying about, it would be all too easy for This Is Us to descend into mawkishness; it takes a lot of effort to make sharp, satirical comedy funny, but it takes even more effort for something sincere to land successfully. Even when Fogleman’s structure becomes overwrought, it gets away with it, because the script has to work doubly hard to offset the soppiness. Executed impeccably by an on-form cast and with direction that’s gentle enough to allow for nuance in each scene, This Is Us is just messy enough to capture the jumbled unpredictability of life, even as you risk rolling your eyes at the feel-good Americana of the whole show. Should you laugh at it? Should you cry? However you react, put down your cynicism and be glad of the fact that there’s an ‘it’ to talk about.
This Is Us Season 1 and 2 is available on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.