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NBC’S “THIS IS US” TUGS EFFECTIVELY AT HEARTSTRINGS

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Tears and heavy sighs of relief were the appropriate responses to “This is Us,” NBC’s new family drama TV series which premiered on Tuesday night. Focusing on a set of ordinary people who undergo life struggles, four out of the five main characters coincidentally share the same birthday and by the premiere’s end, it was established that these five are related. 

Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore play the adorable, triplets-expecting couple, Jack and Rebecca Pearson, whose lives are thrown into a metaphorical blender when Rebecca abruptly goes into labor while the two are celebrating Jack’s 36th birthday. Primetime Emmy-Award Winner Sterling K. Brown portrays Randall, a supposedly-prosperous businessman who is searching for his biological father who abandoned him as a young boy at some fire station decades earlier while his biological mother died from a crack addiction. Chrissy Metz plays Kate, an overweight woman who is constantly battling her body image insecurities- but things lighten up when she meets her no-nonsense love interest, Toby (Chris Sullivan). Justin Hartley portrays Kevin, a hunky actor who is unhappy with how his good looks are exploited for his one-dimensional, cringe worthy sitcom, “The Man-ny.”

Show creator Dan Fogelman seamlessly crafted this ensemble cast whose individual, seemingly-simplistic storylines are revealed to be connected, with a smart twist that’s bound to push viewers back into their couches in shock. Fogelman, who wrote “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011), once again was able to hurl such a twist at the audience so effortlessly that not only does it change the entire narrative of the show, it sets up an intriguing question about whether the five characters will eventually all meet in person.

Creating a great family drama TV series can be daunting because the show’s success depends on the viewers to emotionally connect with the characters and be invested in their scattered moments of joy, tragedy, confusion and hope. There is a sense of simplicity that pervades the pilot of “This is Us,” even the show’s title alone feels minimalist. The ensemble cast faces ordinary struggles, each distinct from the other, hence increasing the chance of viewers identifying or relating to any. Such struggles—risks with childbirth, insecurities, abandonment and job dissatisfaction—don’t just feel real, they are real. This show may not also have extravagant-looking dragons like in “Game of Thrones,” cunning supervillains like in “Gotham” or sword-wielding fairy tale characters like from “Once Upon a Time” to visually dazzle the viewer. Instead, its normalcy triumphs in offering such an endearing premiere.

A particular highlight is how the ensemble cast seems amiable which helps to impress viewers despite how certain scenes in the show feels cheesy, like Jack’s doctor giving a variant of the “life gives you lemons, make lemonade” speech. But a hint of cheesiness feels apt for the show, since emotions drive the characters, this premiere, and probably for the rest of the show.

The heartwarming chemistry between certain characters, particularly Jack and Rebecca, and Kate and Kevin (revealed to be twins), was another strong ingredient that labeled this premiere as a winner. The love between Jack and Rebecca feels like a much-appreciated anchor that further ties the show together while the overall ensemble cast’s constant support and likability leaves little excuse for a viewer to dislike any character. Because it is an ensemble cast, it could have felt so crowded with too many storylines. However, under the direction of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, each character was given ample time to be fittingly introduced so that viewers can grow to care about their individual struggles.

The ending twist was the final landmark point for the premiere as it is revealed that Jack and Rebecca are the biological parents of Kate and Kevin, and Randall’s adoptive parents. Chronologically speaking, Jack and Rebecca actually take place in around 1980 (since four central characters are 36 years old) while Kate, Kevin and Randall’s stories are set in the present day. This twist also brings up how the premiere’s direction feels not only smooth, but purposeful, as viewers would initially assume that the overall premiere is set in the current day, thus making the twist even more effective.

Given this juicy twist, the premiere pits the five characters on a wide, imaginary landscape where their characters can grow into many directions while their familial connection keeps them grounded. One can only hope that the two blocks of timelines will someday converge into a scene where the five characters are interacting with each other at the same place and time. This is an intelligent tactic to hopefully entice viewers to return and anticipate for such a scene. But as more answers are hopefully delivered to us in the near future, this is a show that deserves an audience.

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