In recent years, no major network has been more troubled than NBC. In an attempt to stanch the bleeding—to rebandage the bandage on a gangrenous nub—NBC has chosen to air only three new shows this fall, rather than hew to the standard practice of deluging the audience with series that the network does not believe in and expects to fail. The anointed series are Timeless, one of the year’s time-traveling series (if the development process is a game of telephone, the starting sentence here is “Would you kill baby Hitler?”); The Good Place, a high-concept comedy from Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur about an undeserving woman who ends up in heaven; and the drama This Is Us, a well-crafted, uplifting, tear-jerking, Parenthood-imitating abomination.
This Is Us is invigoratingly heinous. Bad TV is a commonplace, but a true Mount Everest of bullshit is rare. Created by the prolific Dan Fogelman, whose charming Pitch starts this month on Fox, This Is Us tells the linked stories of four characters who share a birthday. The first episode contains an unusually deft twist that uses audience expectation against itself to create a genuine surprise, a fillip that demonstrates the facility that Fogelman, also the writer of the surprising Crazy, Stupid, Love, has with storytelling conventions. But Fogelman has put his abundant intelligence, skill, and savvy into the service of a smug and preening piece of schlock.
The birthday boys and girl are four. First is Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who we meet in his birthday suit, waiting for his annual strip tease from his adored wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), very pregnant with triplets. While canoodling, Rebecca’s water breaks, sending her and Jack to the hospital, where everything does not go as smoothly as they had hoped. The lone birthday girl, Kate (Chrissy Metz), is an obese woman who leaves herself sassy Post-it notes in the fridge, commanding herself not to eat her birthday cake in advance, and who has made a new commitment to weight loss. Kate’s twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), is having a bad birthday, wondering how he got to be a 36-year-old actor starring in a dumb sitcom called The Manny. And finally there is Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a happily married father and high-powered corporate professional who spends his birthday tracking down the birth father who abandoned him on the steps of a fire station the day he was born.
All of the actors are capable and charming. The storylines hit their marks—the laughs, the tears, the awws—with the precision of a robotic ballerina. The show is almost good, or at least exactly the sort of emotional drama networks should be trying to make these days. But it is so sure it is special, so convinced it has something to say that it sullies its basic achievements with self-satisfaction. This Is Us is to uplift as the movie Babel is to sadness: oppressively devoted. What starts as a well-made and sticky network drama becomes a stealth stink bomb, steadily emitting toxic fumes, until its stench—rotten cheesy, fetid corny—is overpowering. Is that a tear in your eye or a biological response to such an acrid reek? The smell is so bad that it contaminates across space and time, sullying even its closest relative, Parenthood, another show about yuppies that forswore anything but uplifting resolution and ultimately turned all tribulations into celebrations.
I would start with Jack and Rebecca’s storyline, but that would suggest Rebecca has a place in it. Despite being the one in labor, she is an afterthought. As the birth gets underway, Rebecca’s OB, the avuncular and reassuring Dr. K (Gerald McRaney), suggests to the couple that they have a conversation about what to do in the event of complications, a likelihood with triplets. “We’re not going to have this conversation,” Jack says. “We need to have this conversation,” Rebecca says. “We’re not going to have this conversation,” he commands. “We’re walking out of this hospital with healthy babies and a healthy wife. … I’m going to need everyone in this room to believe me when I say only good things are going to happen today. Actually I don’t just want you to believe it, I want you to know it. Do you know it, baby?” Isn’t Jack so strong and dreamy? He believes his bedside incantation of the Secret is more potent than proper medical precautions. Rebecca responds with a moony-eyed, “I love you.”
Ventimiglia has made a career out of playing chauvinists as romantics, the type of guy who loves you so much he has to boss you around. If This Is Us has done any good, it has cured me of my soft spot for Gilmore Girls’ Jess, also played by Ventimiglia, because Jess would have grown up to be exactly like Jack. Ladies, if your husband interrupts the doctor trying to save your life by claiming he can protect you with the force of his will, consider kicking his mansplaining behind out of the delivery room, if not your life. The medical complications that Dr. K foresaw do, of course, arrive, but Dr. K has been won over by Jack’s speech, as the audience is meant to be. He has decided Jack is good dad material—he sure thinks he knows best, anyway—and gives him a heart-tugging soliloquy that ends with the advice to make lemonade out of lemons. This inspires Jack to make another command decision for his incapacitated wife.
Then there is Kevin and his no good horrible very bad day. Kevin is slaving away in the belly of the crappy sitcom beast, working on an idiotic show that mostly requires him to take his shirt off, though he is capable of more, so much more. (I’m making light of Kevin here, not Hartley, who is very winning in the role.) Finally given a scene that requires some chops—the Manny dressing down his deadbeat dad, played by Alan Thicke—Kevin reaches his breaking point when the hacky writer asks him to do a follow-up “comedic” take. Kevin launches into an on-set screed before a live studio audience about the fakery that surrounds him, the lack of real emotion. “It’s not the writers’ fault this show is so bad—and it is so bad. It’s not the network’s fault for airing it. It’s you guys!” Kevin yells, turning on the studio audience. “Why are you watching this stuff? It’s your fault for demanding so little of us that we settle for it. Shame on me for taking the money. Shame on you for making me famous. Shame on all of us.” You’ll excuse my bullshit meter for imploding to hear that a network trying to save itself with a procedural about a crack team of time-travelers has no culpability when it comes to the quality of what does and does not make it onto the air.
This Is Us is quintessential middlebrow: well-crafted entertainment for audiences who fancy they have decent taste that seems to challenge our perspective—we are responsible for the crap in the world!—but merely flatters us—well, not us, because we get the vapidity of television. This Is Us makes a show of celebrating that which is “real” but has no time for unruly or unpleasant emotions. Kate may be obese, but as the show begins, she has decided not to be despondent about it. She heads to Overeaters Anonymous, which is full of delusional sad sacks, except for her and her soon-to-be love interest Toby (Chris Sullivan), the two people sardonic enough to laugh at everyone else. Randall may be furious that he was abandoned by his drug addict parents, but when he meets his birth father—recovered, sickly, gentle, and kind—he excoriates him, goes up to his apartment, excoriates him more, invites him to meet his grandchildren, and then the two share a very tender moment full of all the closure a screenwriter can provide.
There is nothing wrong with comforting television. Providing comfort is probably TV’s most consistent accomplishment. Life is painful. TV doesn’t always have to be. But what is grandiose and hypocritical about This Is Us is that it pretends realism, not comfort, is its goal, insulting escapist sitcoms, while it treats anger, sadness, grief, and disappointment as brief stopovers to more constructive feelings. For all its structural sophistication, it is as trite and clichéd as any sitcom, just more self-satisfied—junk for people who think they are above junk, a Slanket sneering at Crocs.