Are all people who are born on the same day connected in some sort of way? From zodiac signs to Chinese astrology, we all seem to look to some sort of connection between us and those who share our date of birth. (If there is one, five bucks to the person who can find some sort of commonality between Tom Cruise, Audra McDonald and myself.) However, this is the concept that binds four different storylines in NBC’s latest heartwarming drama, “This Is Us.”
We are introduced to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), naked on his bed waiting for his pregnant wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), to give him her birthday present. Only problem: in the middle of meet-cute dialogue, her water breaks. Meanwhile, Kate (Chrissy Metz), a lonely, overweight woman, talks herself out of eating birthday cake by snarky post-it notes she wrote for herself. Her twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) is a handsome heartthrob actor unhappy with his cushy, but unfulfilling role on a lame TV show called “The Manny.” Finally, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a put-together family man, learns the identity of his birth father (Ron Cephas Jones) who abandoned him at a fire station at birth. For as many storylines as it has, the show remarkably never feels rushed or as if it is shortchanging any one of them.
As the episode progresses, so do the water work moments. It wouldn’t be a drama if Rebecca’s pregnancy weren’t high risk. With one of her three triplets not arriving quite on schedule, your heart breaks just through looking at Ventimiglia’s eyes. Randall goes to confront his father, only to be taken with the man, who has become clean and sober. Meanwhile, Kevin goes on a Jerry Maguire-style rant as he leaves his unsatisfying sitcom gig. Kate, on the other hand, goes on a sweet date with a man (Chris Sullivan) in her overeaters anonymous group.
Other than Kevin and Kate’s storylines, it isn’t easily apparent how all these characters fit together. That is until a last minute twist, that shall remain unspoiled, connects the four birthday sharers together. Like most of the show, it’s sappy and sweet. However, it’s nonetheless fulfilling. Building off the twist will take great skill and dedication. This is especially tricky as the twist won’t be able to stay hidden from the public for much longer.
It’s Jack and Rebecca’s storyline that elicits the most potent emotional blows. One particular heart-to-heart between Jack and Doctor K (Gerald McRaney), his wife’s doctor, is guaranteed to leave one reaching for extra tissues. Ventimiglia also makes good on the raw talent he showed as early on as “Gilmore Girls.” It will be exciting to see how well he does graduated to a fully fleshed out adult role.
Yet, it is hard to hold a candle to recent Emmy winner Brown. His storyline might not be the most flashy. Yet, he is able to sell every emotional beat in complex, unexpected ways. His approach to scenes shows the talent of a great actor who will be exciting to watch over the season.
Creator Dan Fogelman, the writer of such films as “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Tangled,” shows great strength at melodrama throughout the pilot. That’s not to say the show will be known for its subtlety. Each frame is genetically modified to be set to an acoustic guitar to elicit tears from its audience. However, is that necessarily a bad thing? There’s something refreshingly cathartic about a good-hearted weepie, à la “Parenthood” or “Brothers and Sisters.”
The show does need to craft a greater range of emotional beats if it doesn’t want to become a downer. The twist is a good start. However, other episodes aren’t going to achieve the same level of emotion by pulling out a well crafted twist. The seeds of the characters’ arcs are planted, but it remains to be seen if they can grow to fruition. Still, the show has my heart – it just has to make sure to keep it.
“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.