December 7, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Midseason Finale Review: “This Is Us”


Last week’s episode of NBC’s THIS IS US notched an impressive achievement:  in Live + 7 ratings, it moved past Empire to become the highest rated drama on broadcast TV.  Admittedly, L7 ratings aren’t the most meaningful metric for advertiser purposes, and being the highest rated broadcast drama isn’t the gala event it would have been a few years ago–but still, it’s the kind of popularity that no one expected from such a low-tech, low-glitz series.

The creator of This Is Us, Dan Fogelman (also a co-creator of this fall’s Pitch) has happened upon just the right mix of old and new storytelling modes for this moment in television.  The series is fundamentally a traditional, even old-fashioned family drama built around the three dysfunctional Pearson siblings.  Kevin (Justin Hartley) is a good-looking actor trying to work past his own shallowness.  Kate (Chrissy Metz) is made miserable by her own obesity.  And their adopted black brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown), abandoned as a newborn by his crack-addicted biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), has recently made contact with the man, only to discover that while William in recovery, he’s also dying of cancer.

The show surrounds this old-school drama, though, with enough gimmickry and reveals to bear comparison with Westworld.  In fact, the pilot’s Big Twist was a mini-version of Westworld‘s whopper:  young married couple Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who appeared to be living their lives alongside those of the Pearson children, turned out to be located decades earlier, and in fact to be the siblings’ parents.  The cleverness has piled on ever since, whether narrative (Rebecca had known about William all along!  And in the present, she was married to Jack’s best friend!) or structural (Randall gets accidentally stoned and communes with a hallucination version of Jack!).  It’s comfort food that keeps viewers on their toes, both tear-jerking and willing at any moment to pull the rug out from under the audience’s collective feet.

Tonight’s midseason finale, written by Executive Producer (and co-showrunner with Fogelman) Donald Todd and directed by Helen Hunt, doubled as the This Is Us Christmas episode, so there was no end to the on-screen sentiment.  The week’s Reveal was that William was, as his granddaughter put it, gay or at least bisexual, reunited at a Christmas Eve NA meeting with his lover (Denis O’Hare), whom he immediately invited to dinner with the family.  For the obligatory WTF moment, we had Randall intruding on a co-worker (Westworld‘s own William, Jimmi Pearson!) who was about to jump off the roof of their office building.  (If it had only been Rebecca who saved him instead of Randall, 30 years later he could have been on that roof as the Man In Black.)  And there were no less than three life-threatening surgeries, two in the past (appendicitis for Kate, and post-car accident trauma for the doctor who’d delivered Kate and Kevin, played by old pro Gerald McRaney) and one in the present, when Kate’s equally large boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan) keeled over while helping to clear plates.  (The latter became the finale cliffhanger.)

This Is Us doesn’t go very deep:  it would be nice to see a single scene about Kate that doesn’t revolve around her weight, and William has become such a fount of wisdom that he’s practically Yoda.  But the cast is excellent, especially when Sterling K. Brown (who, with this on the heels of his Emmy-award winning role in People Vs. OJ Simpson, is truly on a roll) shares the screen with Susan Kelechi Watson as his wife Beth, who may be the best married couple on TV.  The series has an effective balance of heartbreak and charm, the latter evident in a subplot tonight that had Kevin pretending (but huh, maybe not so pretending) to be the boyfriend of Sloane (Milana Vayntrub), writer of the play he’s appearing in, and accompanying her to her family’s Hanukkah dinner.

Family dramas that click can go on forever:  Shameless is in its 7th season, and even Parenthood, consistently a bubble show, stayed on the air for 6 years  This Is Us is a bigger hit than either, so it’s likely to settle in for a long-term stay.  Perhaps with time it will relax into its characters rather than just using them as the clay for its elaborate twists and tricks, but for now those seem to be enough.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."