There’s a point in the opening chapter of This is Us that had me asking “Where is this show going?” “What’s the hook?” and “What do these people want?”
Thankfully by the end a lot more of the answers were falling into place, but I can’t detail those without spoiling it for you.
The disparate characters in Dan Fogelman’s new American drama are all celebrating their 36th birthday, but play out in separate story strands.
Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) are about to give birth, but a substitute doctor (Gerald McRaney) warns there could be complications. Ever the optimist, Jack refuses to believe things will go wrong, especially on his birthday.
Kate (Chrissy Metz) is depressed by her obesity and joins a weight-loss club where she meets Toby (Chris Sullivan) her first date in years.
Hunky actor Kevin (Justin Hartley) is suffocating in his sitcom role as ‘The Manny’, delivering inane punchlines and perpetually being asked to show off his ample abs.
Affluent businessman Randall (Sterling K. Brown) uncovers the real identity of his father who abandoned him at a fire station on the day of his birth, and prepares to confront him.
As the episode ducks and weaves from one sub-plot to another, the viewer is deliberately left in the dark as to how these clusters will intersect. An opening title card nods to a Wikipedia note that 18 million of us have the same exact birthday. But that’s the only hint given for free.
Nevertheless, each of the story strands is entertaining within itself, thanks to intelligent dialogue, sympathetic characters, adult decisions and a little edge.
Kevin’s frustration at playing The Manny has hints of Charlie Sheen’s meltdown on Two and a Half Men (look out for Alan Thicke in one of his final performances, as himself). Kate’s struggle with her weight and prospective romance looks a little Mike and Molly were it not for the glum tone.
Jack’s life and death hospital scenes are underscored by a beautiful performance by veteran actor Gerald McRaney (Simon & Simon, Major Dad, Deadwood) as Dr. Katowski. Sterling K. Brown (The People v. O. J. Simpson) also brings conviction to the search for his paternal father.
Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Tangled, Cars) writes from the heart for this sentimental piece which will slip perfectly into a drama slot warmed up by shows like Offspring and The Wrong Girl. In truth it sits alongside works such as Brothers & Sisters and Parenthood.
The final pay-off, the hook that links the cast, is very satisfying and opens up prospects for intriguing tales I look forward to exploring.
This is Us premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on TEN.