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Does ‘This Is Us’ Prove That Broadcast TV Is Still Relevant? — IndieWire Critics Survey

As NBC's weepy drama wraps up its final season, TV critics evaluate its place among prestige dramas.

"This Is Us"

“This Is Us”

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Does the success of “This Is Us” prove that broadcast TV is still relevant in creating prestige dramas (loosely defined through awareness, ratings, awards, etc.)?

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

I’m not sure many critics consider “This is Us” a so-called “prestige” television drama, even now. The fact remains that many shows which are more often hailed as prestige dramas – FX’s “Atlanta,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” AMC’s “Better Call Saul” – are darker, more explicit and more challenging to viewers than most everything on network TV. “This Is Us” does signal to network TV types that more complex storytelling can still be embraced by large audiences in broadcast and even dramas centered on a middle class white family can be racially, culturally and economically diverse in ways which don’t feel contrived. As a longtime fan of criminally-underwatched family dramas – yes, “Parenthood,” I’m talking about you! – I’m just hopeful “This Is Us” will inspire TV networks to forgo the latest film franchise redo or ill-timed “revival” of an old series to center more quality dramatic storytelling on the ways families live now – and how they got here in the first place.

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Inkoo Kang (@inkookang), MTV News

Yes, the prestige broadcast hour-long lives — on The CW! “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “Riverdale” are three of the best and one of the buzziest dramas currently on the air. (Since it’s not always easy to neatly sort shows into the Comedy and Drama boxes, I’m following the Emmys’ rule of thumb by using “drama” as a stand in for the 45-60 minute show.) As long as no superheroes are in it, I’m always primed to check out The CW’s offerings. If the three shows I mention above have taught us anything, broadcast TV’s youngest network is the one most likely to experiment with format and give low-rated critical darlings a chance.

P.S. As a non-fan of This is Us, I hope we can also give other network dramas like “Scandal,” “The Good Wife,” and “American Crime” credit for making broadcast TV a smart place to be.

"Jane the Virgin"

“Jane the Virgin”

The CW

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

“This Is Us” doesn’t prove anything in terms of ratings and awareness that “Scandal” and “Empire” didn’t already prove in the past five years. Word-of-mouth popularity building is still possible on a mainstream level, even if audience expansion remains more an exception than a rule. [That these are all shows with diverse/inclusive casts and creative teams is NOT a coincidence.] The jury is still out regarding whether “This Is Us” is going to be able to compete with the cable/streaming heavyweights for Emmys, but even if it does, that’s probably more a factor of category-attrition — “Game of Thrones” not airing, “House of Cards” and “Homeland” becoming effectively irrelevant — than anything else. “This Is Us” is a decent show that operates somewhat effectively on emotional levels that very few other shows have attempted and probably it’s a level that plays to a wide audience. Basically, it’s the right show at the right time in the right place, but it doesn’t prove anything.

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Damian Holbrook @damianholbrook, TV Guide Magazine

Not exactly, because I don’t think people in general see “This Is Us” as a “prestige drama.” It’s a family soap, and an expertly crafted one that is attractive to an audience that wants something that has the same level of production quality, strong casting and involving storytelling, without the often excessive edginess, violence and language of say, an FX or HBO. Not that they don’t want them, as well. But network TV has tried so hard to stay relevant by replicating the successes of “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “Game of Thrones,” even “The Walking Dead,” and most have been to middling results. What “This Is Us” has captured, in my opinion, is a viewership that enjoys drama and high emotion, without decapitations and F-bombs, that touches them and allows for a “watching-together” experience.

"Empire"

“Empire”

FOX

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

Broadcast has obviously lagged behind during Peak TV, but I don’t think it was ever completely irrelevant. “The Good Wife” — the flag bearer for network prestige dramas for seven years — ended four months before “This Is Us” assaulted your tear ducts (not mine, I don’t watch and I am heartless), and though it lacks the snob appeal that often comes with a #prestigedrama and was thoroughly rejected by the Emmys, “Empire” was the biggest thing two years ago. Broadcast is capable of producing such fare if it weren’t so focused on churning out “Chicago Garbage Disposal,” among other factors. The test for “This Is Us” is if it can sustain these levels next season — and if it can become the first network show since “The Good Wife” six years ago to be nominated for drama series at the Emmys. (Spoiler alert: It will be.)

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Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

How are we defining “relevant”? If it’s creatively, “This Is Us” isn’t even the best drama on broadcast TV at the moment (that would be “American Crime”), and as great as the material about Randall and his family is, the other storylines drag the show’s average down to where it’s really not competitive with the best from the cable and streaming worlds. If it’s commercially, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since the first season of “Empire,” and with a few exceptions (“Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones”), most of the prestige dramas that get all the buzz either have a small audience (“The Americans”) or an audience the size of which we will never know (anything on Netflix). A successful broadcast show, even in the days of what Kate Aurthur calls #EndTimes, will still likely have a much bigger audience than its cable or streaming equivalent.

I like “This Is Us” a lot. I’m glad it’s a hit, and I’m glad that a lot of people are getting to see what Sterling K. Brown is capable of. But unless it goes full-on “The Randall Show,” it’s still well behind the best of what’s available.

"The Good Wife"

“The Good Wife”

CBS

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

Broadcast television as a means to get eyeballs will always be relevant in churning out “prestige dramas” — as you’ve defined them — as long as it has the amount of access to eyeballs it has. NBC is still in more homes in the US than HBO, Netflix and FX, and that won’t change for a while. All networks need to do is figure out what to put out there, and the family drama of “This Is Us” (and the other recent network smash, “Empire”) has a much better chance to be a hit than say, a sexy version of a historical figure comes to modern times to catch bad guys or “Sort of Famous Movie Reboot.” Even when the way TV is distributed changes and we’re streaming Season 52 of “House of Cards” on the back of our eyelids, the big nets will likely still be around and making noise every once in a while. What I’m saying is it’s not the source, it’s the content. Broadcast may swing 100 times before making contact, but they still hit it every once in a while.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

I say this as someone who enjoys some of broadcast’s more unconventional entries these days (that’s right, I’m the one who liked “Emerald City” ) but there’s no denying that “This is Us” is an aberration. Like so many prestige dramas these days, “This is Us” makes me sob uncontrollably on a regular basis. However, I’ll also cry at phone commercials, so that’s not the best gauge of quality. The real question is whether the success of “This is Us” leads to more networks taking a chance on dramas of this genre, hopefully leading to shows genuinely good enough to rival what’s happening elsewhere. If that does become a trend, then who knows? Broadcast could start to thrive as an awards player again.

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Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

As much as I enjoy “This Is Us,” I think it’s a show that we’ve been tricked into calling a prestige drama (even loosely defined).

It’s very, very good at emotional manipulation, and that’s a big part of why I (and so many others) watch it. It’s been a guaranteed weekly cry that continues to best itself in the waterworks department (see: the “Memphis” episode, and presumably the season finale regarding Jack), and it’s a relief to watch a drama that focuses on joyous moments as much as grief (and no one is a murderer… yet).

But “This Is Us” has also been very savvy and purposeful in its desire to create watercooler moments in every episode, encouraging people to watch live (or soon afterwards) as appointment television, which not only makes the numbers look good, but reinforces the show’s popularity. Because it feels like everyone is watching it and talking about it each week, more people genuinely want to join in to be a part of the discussion.

When thinking about broadcast TV’s relevance in creating prestige drama, it’s “Hannibal” and “The Good Wife” that come to mind, but they didn’t have very big audiences. That’s the line broadcast toes, and it’s not a simple one. Still, with “This Is Us,” it feels like it’s being graded on a curve as “good… for broadcast.” Ultimately, I think it’s not really that “This Is Us” is an example of a fantastic TV series so much as it’s an example of NBC smartly augmenting its platform, and Dan Fogelman adroitly hypnotizing our emotions in a way that makes us overlook the show’s issues. If by Prestige TV we mean “The Prestige,” then yes, “This Is Us” is a bit of magic… even if it’s only an illusion.

Christian Bale, "The Prestige"

Christian Bale, “The Prestige”

Touchstone Pictures

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

“This Is Us” is generally proof that network TV might be interested in creating prestige dramas, but is still too risk-averse to actually pull a prestige drama off. For as much as I’ve loved shows as varied as “The Good Wife,” “Parenthood,” and “Person of Interest” (all network dramas), and for as enjoyable as a great Shonda Rhimes show can be, there’s still a tendency in network TV to over-explain everything — and that’s a tendency you can see all over the place in “This Is Us.” In particular, I’m thinking of a scene in the season’s midseason premiere where the three Pearson siblings sat in a hospital and recapped the season so far for each other, ostensibly to compare notes on whose life was worst, but also presumably to keep the audience up to date on their adventures. It was ridiculous.

I admire the scope and ambition of “This Is Us,” but the best dramas usually trust their audience, leaving certain ideas to visuals or to subtext. “This Is Us” just isn’t at that level yet, outside of a couple of (genuinely great) moments. Its success has me hopeful that network dramas will get ambitious again — but I don’t know that they’re yet to the place they could be.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers) , IndieWire

I guess we’ll know when the Emmys nominations are announced. As much as I’d like to define “prestige TV” myself, cutting out series based on quality comparisons alone, I also try to remember that industry respect combined with powerful ratings can elevate a show to prestige territory. (Frankly, that’s how I imagine “Game of Thrones” got in, a flawed series throughout that I nevertheless cannot deny is among the elite programs now.) You don’t need all three to be prestigious — “The Americans” was in the club long before the Emmys caught up — but you at least need passionate support from awards or critics to qualify.

And “This Is Us” is on its way to the former. There have been past examples of this principle at play, but none ran the gamut. “Empire” was a ratings smash and earned good enough reviews to merit awards consideration, but other than Taraji P. Henson’s Golden Globes win and Emmy nods, the series has been ignored by the WGA and SAG. Even its handful of Emmys nominations were a disappointment after Season 1 dominated TV the way it did.

“This Is Us” already won a WGA award while earning three Golden Globes nods and a SAG nomination for Sterling K. Brown. If it snags some Emmys love, as many expect, “This Is Us” will be — objectively speaking — the all-around strongest broadcast drama since “The Good Wife” was in its prime. Industry respect, strong ratings, and enough critical support are coming together in a time when the holy trinity of prestige TV is slipping away from broadcast dramas.

That being said, TV Academy: Vote “Leftovers.”

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “The Americans” (4 votes)

Other contenders: ”Baskets,” (two votes) Black-ish,” “The Expanse,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Legion,” “This Is Us” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.

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