Series like Watchmen, The Witcher, Into The Badlands and The Boys managed to build on the momentum of Game Of Thrones and even mimic some of the show’s style and substance, but none have achieved GOT’s level of cultural saturation.
While the Thrones prequel House Of The Dragon or Amazon’s upcoming The Lord Of The Rings adaptation may finally provide the fix we’ve all been seeking since the HBO fantasy drama ended, networks and streaming services might be better off trying to duplicate the success of another popular series, This is Us.
Much like Game Of Thrones, This Is Us quickly became a zeitgeist and ratings-juggernaut, but for completely different reasons. The strong sense of nostalgia and sentimentality that surrounds the Pearson family make the series an absolute tear-jerker.
But while This Is Us is unique for its relatability and knack for tapping into the emotional intensity that’s particular to families, that doesn’t mean its tissue-grabbing ways can’t be replicated. After all, the series is in some ways following in the footsteps of other broadcast shows.
Friday Night Lights, Party Of Five, Parenthood, and The Wonder Years (more on the reboot later) were all family dramas with emotional heft that garnered strong fan bases and/or awards recognition. More recently, One Day At A Time, A Million Little Things, Queen Sugar and even Succession have all displayed elements for which the Pearson family has become famous, illustrating that the influence of This is Us may have permeated a variety of genres. The challenges of family life, accepting people we love unconditionally no matter their faults, and the diverse nature of love are reflected in all of these programs.
Though not as contentious as the hunt for a Thrones successor, the search for the next This Is Us has been heating up in this fall’s TV season. Here are three contenders that would be more than happy to have you wipe away your tears.
NBC might have finally found a successor to one of its biggest hits with this new series starring James Wolk. The Mad Men and Watchmen alum plays everyman Joe Kimbreau, a man who faces a life-hanging decision at his college graduation, although it doesn’t seem momentous at the time. Viewers witness all three of Joe’s choices and the impact of each decision through flashbacks and present day views of each of his alternate realities.
In one life, Joe’s a cop; in another, he’s a nurse; and in a third, he’s a rock star. But this series goes much deeper than a childhood game of M*A*S*H or a schoolboy’s fantasy about what kind of jobs it would be cool to have when he grows up.
Rock star Joe is married to Amy (Natalie Martinez), a woman he met on graduation day. Nurse Joe is married to his college sweetheart Jenny (Elizabeth Lail). Cop Joe followed in his father’s footsteps. Joe’s dad died during the 9/11 attacks, so the pull of family is strong for the single police officer who runs into Amy and Jenny at a Syracuse class reunion.
The “What if?” premise looms large and will not only make viewers wonder which of the three realities fit Joe best, but likely also prompt them to examine their own lives and ask themselves the same question.
Taken individually, each of Joe’s choices makes sense, but in every timeline there’s a tinge of regret. So far, the series is full of thoughtful and emotional moments and several twists. With a multi-generational cast and plenty of flashbacks, Ordinary Joe has plenty of This Is Us potential.
It’s This is Us: Dance Edition! Or at least, that’s what this series appears to be at first glance. However, The Big Leap is essentially a show-within-a-show, with each packing an emotional punch.
In the new drama, The Big Leap is also the name of a new Fox reality program looking to cast amateur dancers to participate in a modern version of Swan Lake that will be performed live. Unlike a competitive reality show, there are no eliminations. Producers are casting people looking for something that can give their lives a spark, or perhaps recapture a sense of direction that they’ve lost. There certainly are plenty of candidates.
Mike (Jon Rudnitsky) works odd jobs. His wife left him because he let his successful career go to his head and cheated on his wife. Julia (Teri Polo) is a former ballerina obsessed with social media because she gets more attention online than she does from her own family.
There are several other characters featured, but the series primarily revolves around the relationship between Gabby (Simone Recasner) and her former boyfriend Justin (Raymond Cham Jr.). The two had a falling-out right before high school graduation, and neither is living the life they dreamed of just a few years prior.
Wrangling these emotionally vulnerable people together into a semi-cohesive TV program is executive producer Nick Blackburn (Scott Foley). Blackburn only cares about ratings, and he’s manipulative with his staff and the cast. His brusque attitude contrasts sharply with the sentimental aspects of the show, but Foley’s delivery is so deadpan that his character adds just the right touches of humor.
Viewers are sure to have their heartstrings plucked by multiple characters, as each one has a compelling story to tell. Much like This Is Us, you’ll root for some characters and be confused by the decisions of others. Even if one of the amateur dancers sets you on edge, you’ll still want to see how plot points play out.
One of the more intriguing aspects of The Big Leap is that although its cast is composed mostly of characters in dire straits, self-empowerment is at its core, so it contains plenty of feel-good vibes.
In many ways, the Wonder Years series that premiered in 1988—which starred Fred Savage, who’s an executive producer on the reboot—served as a precursor to This is Us. Much like the Pearsons, the Arnolds were a typical American family with three children and complicated family dynamics.
While reviving a beloved series can be a tricky proposition, Saladin K. Patterson and Lee Daniels’ reimagining has the potential to offer the touching sentimentality of This Is Us, combined with the universally understood awkwardness of a coming-of-age story. That’s one heck of a combination.
The rebooted version of The Wonder Years is set in 1968 and focuses on the Williams family, who live in Birmingham, Alabama. Bill Williams (Dule Hill) is always the most suave man in the room. An R&B musician who also teaches at a local college, he calmly reminds his family to “be cool” in tense situations. His wife Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh) keeps the children on task, and is prone to remind the kids to “stay out of grown folks business” if they ask too many questions.
This is the household that 12-year-old Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams) is growing up in, and it’s a crowded one. The youngest of the Williams clan, Dean knows he’ll never be as popular as his sister or athletic as his brother, who’s in Vietnam, so he’s trying to find his place in the world.
Dean deals with bullies, school, crushes and the constant struggle of not trying to embarrass himself, which makes him immensely relatable. The series also does a fine job of demonstrating how life in America in 2021 in many ways isn’t much different than it was in 1968. Smart narration by Don Cheadle, who plays the grown-up Dean, adds just the right touches of humor and wistfulness to remind viewers of their own adolescence.
Ascending to the tear-jerker throne is no easy feat. In order to be worthy of admitting to your close friends that you cried in front of your TV, a series needs to carry emotionality but not be morose. A family drama also has to have touches of humor, but not so much that viewers confuse it with a family sitcom like The Goldbergs. A delicate balance is required.
The Wonder Years is filled to the brim with nostalgia and a family configuration most closely resembling the Pearson clan. The Big Leap has the ideal mix of subtle humor blended with emotional connectivity to evoke both joy and melancholy.
While these shows have substantial potential, if a This is Us–style emotional journey is what you seek, Ordinary Joe is your best bet. The series’ penchant for timeline jumping, its divergent life-altering crossroads, and multiple storylines are touching and thought provoking.
Keep those tissues nearby.