What We’re Watching: This is Us

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by Caitlin Gronski, Arts Writer

After NBC crushed my heart and aired the final episode of Parenthood last year (RIP), I took it upon myself to scour the depths of Hulu in search of a new TV family to fall in love with. It looks like the TV gods over at NBC have answered my prayers; brand new dramedy This Is Us practically requires a full box of tissues and delivers no shortage of warm-and-fuzzy moments. The pilot episode earned my dedication for two reasons: the unique way in which the narrative unfolds and the beautifully crafted, gritty characters.

Written by Crazy, Stupid Love’s Dan Fogelman, This Is Us delivered a heartwarming first episode with a surprising premise. The episode begins with three of the protagonists separately celebrating their 36th birthdays but it is not revealed until later in the episode that all of the characters are related. The show follows a young couple, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Twins Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz), and family man Randall (Sterling K. Brown) also hold primary roles. For most of the episode, it is unclear how the characters’ storylines will intertwine. It’s a bit of a dizzying jump from character to character without any background information.

At the very end of the episode, the camera zooms out to a wide shot that reveal Rebecca and Jack standing in the hospital, looking at three newborns. A passerby smokes in the hospital while wearing 1970s style clothing. A TV in the waiting room shows Walter Cronkite reporting on the Iran hostage crisis. The pieces of the puzzle begin to come together; Jack and Rebecca delivered twins Kate and Kevin, but lost one of the triplets in delivery. It just so happened that a baby, Randall, was abandoned at a fire-station that same day and is taken to the hospital, and Jack and Rebecca decide to adopt him.

With such a clever introduction, I was left wondering how the rest of the season would be able to compete. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the second episode continue the same format as the first, switching between scenes of Jack and Rebecca in the 1970s, and then to the three kids in present day. A narrative structure that hobbles evenly between present and past offers an entertaining, innovative way for viewers to gain empathy for the characters.

Every character faces his or her own distinct conflict. Kate, who struggles with overeating, labeled her birthday cake to remind herself not to have a slice before her party. Randall finds his birth father and questions whether or not to see him. Kevin has a meltdown on his TV show. Interestingly, the character who perhaps has it together the most is Randall, despite flashbacks that show him struggling to fit in with the rest of his family growing up. These flawed, yet lovable characters have viewers itching to see if their internal conflicts will bring them together or push them away from one another.  

Despite a storyline that’s constantly keeping us guessing, one thing is clear: This Is Us breaks through the clutter of humdrum TV families and offers a fresh perspective on the ups and downs of sibling and parent relationships.  

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