Compared to other TV shows, the grammatically challenged “This is Us” should not be a hit. In a landscape cluttered with network, cable and streaming series that feature flying dragons, killer zombies, graphic nudity, massively staged period pieces and glitzy gimmicks from time travel to super powers, the NBC series has captivated viewers with simple stories of three siblings told through different points in their lives.
“This Is Us” has defied the odds simply by taking beautiful writing and mixing it with superb acting to create a show that is warm, wonderful and a winning family drama.
NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke calls “‘This Is Us’ “as good as anything we’ve ever had.” And this is on a network that gave viewers “Friends,” “Cheers,” “The West Wing,” “The Cosby Show” and “ER.” Salke is so impressed with the series, she’s ordered two more seasons.
“This Is Us” follows events in the lives of the Pearson family. Kate, the character played by Chrissy Metz, is dealing with the physical and emotional pain that comes with obesity, while Kevin (Justin Hartley) is struggling to be taken seriously in a world where he’s only been judged on his looks. Sterling K. Brown’s character, the adopted brother Randall, is battling his own issues while connecting with his biological father, who is battling terminal cancer.
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Because the series looks at the life of the siblings over the years, even the parents, played by Milo Vertimiglia and Mandy Moore, go from the financial struggles of young couples to dealing with cracks in their marriage. They try to be the best parents they can be while raising three children with different needs.
The work being done by Ventimiglia, Moore, Hartley, Metz, Brown, along with Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan and Ron Cephas Jones, has impressed TV audiences. Original episodes of the NBC drama average a 4.6 rating with adults 18-49 and 14.6 million viewers overall, which includes those who watch it the day it airs or on a delayed basis over the next seven days according to Nielsen Media Research. That makes it the top-rated new show of the season with viewers in the 18-49 demographic.
And viewers have not just embraced the show for its entertainment elements – the connection goes much deeper.
Fans tell Ventimiglia, who plays the caring father of the siblings, that the show is important –more than just another TV show.
“I think it’s filling a void, particularly in a television landscape that does get cynical, that does get dark, that does get riddled with zombies, that is more hopeful,” Ventimiglia says. “I think to be a part of something that’s good and hopeful and inspires, as an artist, it’s incredibly satisfying.”
Series creator Dan Fogelman is certain the structure of showing the family at different points of their lives has been a major reason for the success. So far, he’s been able to write at least one surprise into each episode that has generated even more excitement for the show.
The biggest surprise came in the series opener when, in the final minute, it is revealed that the story was unfolding in the past during the birth of the siblings. The episode created an explosion on social media.
“It’s really rewarding to be in the zeitgeist in that way. We all have done this for a very long time and worked very hard on a lot of stuff. It’s very rare that something just lands with people in a way that has people talking the next day,” Fogelman says. “It’s increasingly rare in our environment where there’s so much on. So we have a plan. I remember when we first started coming out, some people were writing, ‘They’re front loading too much.’ We know where the series is going and how we’re going to keep people on their toes.”
“This Is Us” isn’t the first family drama to connect with viewers. Programs like “7th Heaven,” “Sisters,” “thirtysomething,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Parenthood,” “Life Goes On” and “Eight Is Enough” earned solid rating numbers with real life plots. The difference is that most of those shows didn’t have to compete with such a crowded landscape. And, none used the structure of telling the stories through the years to offer insight into the characters.
Key to telling these stories are the interracial and adoption issues through Brown’s character. That puts Jones is in the middle of one of the most emotional plots of the series as his character tries to bond with the son he abandoned years ago while also dealing with his fight with cancer.
Jones suggests one reason the series has become so popular is that people are seeing their own emotions reflected back at them.
“So many people have experienced people in their families that are dealing with cancer and this horrid disease, also. So it gives people a chance to open their feelings up about it, the frustration of having someone in your family deal with this,” Jones says. “The way it’s written and what we’re able to do with it, it’s rare. We’re in rarefied air, and I feel very blessed.”
Moore, who calls working on the series the best job she’s ever had, believes “This Is Us” has connected so deeply with viewers because it fills a void of family programming on the networks, where procedural stories, comic book characters and legal dramas are more the norm.
Her fellow castmates agree. Gerald McRaney, who has been a guest actor playing the doctor who delivers the siblings, has been around TV long enough to see family dramas come and go. He sees the key to the show being the conflict that goes on between good people.
“At their core, these are good, decent people,” McRaney says. “I think a lot of people in the country want to be reminded of the goodness that’s in us. We have have seen a lot of stuff about all of the evil that people do to each other.
“People are tired of feeling cynical about life and it’s time to enjoy it again. I’m glad that a show like this has been a hit.”
“This is Us” is a success because it IS us.
Past episodes are available through various digital platforms, so you can get caught up before the first season finale airs on March 7.
This Is Us
- 9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC (KSEE, Channel 24.1)