Can a pilot be too good? It seems unlikely, but that just might be the case for fans of This Is Us. The highly anticipated new series from Crazy, Stupid, Love writer Dan Fogelman revolves around a twist ending: one that aptly sets up the series, but is so deftly done, it doesn’t leave much room for improvement. Fogelman pulled off a similar twist at the end of Crazy, Stupid, Love, raising the question of how This Is Us might have worked as a movie.
Also like that film, the new series is swarming with likable characters. Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore as adorable expectant couple Jack and Rebecca lead the pack, but there’s also Kate (Chrissy Metz), who’s wrestling with a weight issue just as she meets a new romantic interest; Kevin (Justin Hartley), a dissatisfied sitcom himbo; Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a family man looking for his roots; and even TV staple Gerald McRaney as a kindly old doctor. What’s interesting about these characters is that none of them appear to have conflicts with each other: Often in these types of series (the reason the term “dramedy” was coined), we see sibling squabbles (Parenthood) or intergenerational conflicts (Gilmore Girls) or fights between friends (Thirtysomething, whose vet Ken Olin steps behind the camera here). On This Is Us, whatever these characters are battling—all these obviously and inherently good people—has more to do with something within themselves, or seemingly outside their control: Kate’s overeating, Kevin’s unsatisfying career, Rebecca’s rapidly accelerating labor.
Which is a more ethereal premise than what TV series are usually crafted around (hence the nondescript show title), so we’re really relying a lot on the appeal of the performers. And not just Ventimiglia’s butt shot that kicks off the series. He was compelling years ago on the aforementioned Gilmore Girls, tried his hardest on the briefly successful Heroes, but he’s now the anchor of This Is Us, and makes the most of it. It helps that he’s paired with Moore, in her first series. She reported at the TCAs that Ventimiglia told her, “From action to cut, you’re my wife. So let’s make something beautiful, something people can relate to,” and the two completely sell that mysterious yet tangible chemistry. Of the four storylines, theirs may be the most appealing.
Right behind them is Metz’s Kate, whose story is interesting primarily because it’s so unusual for TV. She finds a suitor at a giggle-inducing support group, bringing up all the issues of dating while she’s in the process of working so hard on herself, as she counts the calories in a single glass of wine and can barely stand to see herself naked, let alone consider showing that body to somebody else. Golden boy Hartley shows a lot more depth than he has previously on shows like Revenge and Smallville, and he has a nice scene playing off of Alan Thicke, now in a late-career resurgence of playing himself. Brown—fresh off a People V. O.J. Simpson Emmy win after being woefully underutilized as the only non-military husband on Army Wives—gets some decent play here as a successful businessman searching for the crackhead who abandoned him as a baby. In keeping with the Fogelman philosophy, even that guy is nice.
So while these characters have room to grow, the end of the pilot leaves it wide open as to how they’re actually going to do that. But the hour accomplishes what it set out to do. It creates characters so compelling that we compulsively want to tune back in to see them again: to see Jack and Kate and Kevin and Randall, and how their lives could possibly intersect, if in fact they will. This Is Us is not as much as a feel-good show as a feel-better show, cinematically crafted with emotive lighting and modern-day easy listening cuts like Anthem Academy’s “Good Life” and “God Knows We’re Worth It” by Jason Mraz. Who among us hasn’t wanted to take the sourest lemon and make lemonade, as McRaney’s doctor counsels this episode, to fix what’s wrong, to improve their lives? Maybe the real question is, what is it about us that makes a seemingly ideal life—Kevin’s as a sitcom star, say, or Randall’s domestic bliss—appear to be lacking something? Even with the title of This Is Us, Fogelman seems to be slyly winking at his audience—because we all do that; we always search for more.