NBC's family drama is an emotional rollercoaster, thanks to its relatable characters and converging storylines.
Spoiler Warning for the first season of “This Is Us.”
It was a Tuesday night in early fall 2016 when “This Is Us” made its debut on NBC, almost immediately becoming a massive critical and ratings hit. With its complex characters and their turbulent relationships, this is by far one of the most relatable and gripping series to grace the small screen in years. By pulling at the viewers’ heartstrings, “This Is Us” just may be the most emotional television show at the moment. Let’s take a look back at all of the ups and downs of the first season.
I’ll be honest, when I first heard about “This Is Us” last May, I wasn’t all that impressed, mostly because family dramas have never really been my cup of tea. I decided to give the pilot episode a chance and for that I am eternally grateful. What initially seemed like a collection of unrelated singular character stories was revealed to be an interconnected family dynamic in an jaw-dropping twist at the end of the premiere episode; at that point, there was no going back. By establishing the Pearson family as a complicated and imperfect group of characters, all with their own flaws, interests and goals, the series had myself and other viewers immediately reeled in as the masterful development began. Don’t let the simple premise fool you, this is a show unlike any other I’ve seen before.
With “This Is Us,” it’s important to understand that the narrative switches between the past and present to tell the full story of the Pearsons. For starters, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) are shown to be the patriarch and matriarch of the family with their children being Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), whom they adopted after their third child was stillborn. In the past timeline, the Pearson clan is shown to be dealing with the various problems that families face, such as marital and financial issues. Young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) experiences hardships as he searches for answers about his biological parents. Through these flashbacks, the audience learns why the characters are the way they are in the present timeline, while also seeing the amazing development of the family bond. Jack and Kate are far from perfect parents, but the love that they have for their children is visceral and ever-present; in many cases, they are shown to be helping each child deal with their own struggles and personal problems. As the “Big Three” grow into teenagers and begin to separate from their parents, there is a heavier focus placed on the marriage of Jack and Rebecca as it begins to hit several roadblocks.
Jack and Rebecca are pretty much the definition of #RelationshipGoals, but that doesn’t mean that everything in their marriage is perfect. They have their own problems just like any healthy relationship, but fans are really thrown for a loop when it is revealed that Rebecca is married to Jack’s best friend Miguel (Jon Huertas) in the present timeline. In later episodes, the viewers are made aware of the fact that Jack died at some point when his children were in their teen years. While the specifics of Jack’s death are still a big mystery, Milo Ventimiglia has stated that the focus should be on how Jack lived his life rather than how he died. It was clear from the beginning that Jack is a total family man, but also struggles with issues such as alcohol abuse and jealousy when Rebecca reunites with an old boyfriend. Rebecca’s aspiration has always been to be a singer, but life catches up to her and she does her best to balance restarting her music career and taking care of her family. She finally gets the chance to go on tour with her band, which includes the old boyfriend, but the marital problems with Jack erupt into a relationship altering argument that leads to her separating from Jack in the season finale. A portion of Rebecca’s story also deals with her covering up the fact that she met Randall’s biological father William (Jermel Nakia- past, Ron Cephas Jones- present) not long after adopting him. While this secret comes to the forefront in the future, it is a heartbreaking commentary on some of the dilemmas that can arise when it comes to adopted children. Through everything, Jack and Rebecca stand as two of the most realistic television characters that I have ever seen.
When it comes to the “Big Three,” it was clear from the beginning that Randall is my personal favorite. At times he feels like the outsider, mostly because of the fact that he is African-American and because he is smarter than his siblings. He is shown as being an incredibly compassionate and humorous member of the family, while dealing with issues such as perfectionism, work-related stress, anxiety disorder and his quest to reconnect with his biological father. While he does reunite with his father in the present time, it is revealed early on that William is suffering from cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live. Over the course of the first season, the rocky relationship between Randall and William develops into a beautiful friendship as the two make up for lost time. William is pretty much the coolest person ever with his fedora and artistic abilities; major recognition should be given to the series for having William be a prominent bisexual African-American character, proving that representation matters when it comes to television characters. The father-son relationship culminates into the heartbreaking episode, “Memphis,” wherein Randall and William pay a visit to Tennessee, allowing the two to spend their final days together before William passes away; this particular episode is not only my favorite of the season, but it is one of the best episodes of any television show that I have seen. Randall’s wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) adds to the humor of the family while taking care of William and the couple’s two daughters Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman); it’s worth noting that Beth has some of the most memorable lines of dialogue, always managing the lighten the mood. Beth’s support of Randall during his hardships is inspirational and serves to develop the relationship into one of the strongest dynamics on the show.
While Randall may be my favorite, that doesn’t mean that they the two other Pearson children aren’t lovable parts of the series. Kate struggles a lot throughout the first season, mostly dealing with her weight and body image, as well as self-confidence. This is something that has bothered Kate her entire life, but as an adult, she really starts making decisions to create a more healthy lifestyle for herself. At a support group meeting, she is introduced to Toby (Chris Sullivan) and the two become “fat friends” as they join forces to loose weight together. This soon evolves into a romantic relationship that also has its ups and downs, including a terrifying and traumatic moment at the family Christmas party where Toby collapses and is sent to the hospital for cardiac arrhythmia. This prompts major changes in the couple’s relationship as they become engaged and Kate heads off to a weight loss camp. There is also unresolved grief and guilt that Kate struggles with in respect to Jack’s death; she has a difficult time opening up to Toby about it initially, but later confesses that her father died because of her. Still, her relationship with Toby and their overall humor together makes this relationship another bright light in the series.
Finally, there is Kevin, who at first appears to be a self-obsessed Hollywood playboy, but over the course of the season is revealed to be a loving man who simply wishes to be closer to his family. After stepping down from his starring role on the hit sitcom” The Manny,” Kevin moves to New York with the aspiration of becoming a Broadway star. Things aren’t quite simple for him as he finds it incredibly difficult to break free of the preconceived notions that people have of him, but the smartness of the writing presents itself when Kevin does live up to these stereotypes at times, making him a multi-dimensional character; he is shown to be selfish at times and also a player when it comes to dating. While developing a theater production, Kevin struggles to choose between two of his colleagues/romantic interests, Olivia (Janet Montgomery) and Sloane (Milana Vayntrub). However, he ultimately decides to attempt to win back his ex-wife and childhood sweetheart Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge), who he cheated on at some point during their marriage. Some of Kevin’s best material is toward the end of the season as he sheds away his selfish Hollywood side to become a more well-rounded and caring family man, providing support for his brother Randall and trying to fix things with Sophie. Viewers are able to root for Kevin as he works incredibly hard to make his theater goals come true while becoming more connected to his family.
I can’t end this review without stating how incredible the performances are from literally every member of the cast. Specific praise must be given to Sterling K. Brown, who previously blew me away with his portrayal of Christopher Darden in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Although, he really is given room to shine in the role of Randall Pearson, perfectly displaying all of the difficult emotions associated with raising a family, dealing with loss and struggling with anxiety. The dynamic between Sterling K. Brown and Ron Cephas Jones as William is perfect and makes me hope for additional flashback scenes in the second season between their characters; the latter helped to tell the gut-wrenching story of a man who faced adversity his entire life, but managed to get things back on track at the end. Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia are also incredible in their roles, effectively becoming the adoptive parents of the entire audience; their fight scene in the season finale is by far the most realistic argument I have ever seen in any form of entertainment and may have just secured their Emmy nominations. The first season has an impressive lineup of recurring and guest appearances by some notable stars including Gerald McRaney, Denis O’Hare, Katey Sagal, Jimmi Simpson, Katie Couric, Ron Howard and the late Alan Thicke. While the cast and series have managed to collect a few Golden Globes nominations, it will be exciting to see how the Emmys treats them.
“This Is Us” is not just the best new show of the season, it has quickly become one of my all time favorites. The focus on telling gripping, yet simple character stories makes this a show that everyone can relate to and find something to connect with. Each character provides to the overall ensemble story, allowing the viewer to watch the Pearson family change and grow as the series progresses. The acting, writing, directing and musical composition are all top notch and make watching the show a truly emotional experience. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the series furthers the development of the family; I have no doubts whatsoever that the series will go on for years. While Season 2 may be several months away, it goes without saying that “This Is Us” is the type of series that is definitely worthy of a rewatch. Just make sure that you have plenty of tissues. The full season is currently available to stream on Hulu and NBC.com