How does one talk about this baffling hour-long NBC drama without spoiling the many, many twists and turns incorporated into the (still-lengthy) 42-minute pilot? Well, plot summary would probably come first, if only to explain what this awkwardly titled NBC drama actually is about. And we’ll get to that in just a second, but because the new series from “Tangled” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” writer Dan Fogelman is so utterly perplexing, we are going to spoil it. Frankly, we need your help just to understand it; or, to be more accurate, to understand what it might become.
Before spoiling, though, let us first say — for those of you who haven’t watched yet and need to know whether or not you should — that our reaction to this as an hour of entertainment is virtually antithetical to our analysis of the “This Is Us” pilot as a first episode of a television series. What “This Is Us” is, is fine. What it will be, however…well, we have no idea.
OK, onto the plot summary: “This Is Us” tracks four seemingly random individuals on the day they turn 36 years old. First, we have Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), a rather ripped father-to-be whose very pregnant wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), goes into labor before he can collect on their intimate birthday tradition. Cut to Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a rather well-off businessman who gets an e-mail saying someone has “found” an older gentleman shown in photos. It seems safe to say this guy is Randall’s papa, but we can’t confirm as much because Randall’s employees surprise him with a birthday cake. So we move on to Kate (Chrissy Metz), a woman struggling with her weight who rededicates herself to a lean and mean diet on her birthday.
And here’s where we get into spoilers, so be warned. Turns out Kate has a fraternal twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor who’s in such incredible shape he actually stars on a TV show that requires him to be shirtless 90 percent of the time. No, he’s not playing a lifeguard. Nor is Kevin a professional wrestler, a model or even an actor. He’s a male nanny, and the point made ever so bluntly in “This Is Us” is that most broadcast sitcoms are cheap sexploitation without any artistic credibility, a fact serving three higher callings:
1. It reminds viewers they’re better than those other schmucks slumming it on CBS right now.
2. It reinforces “This Is Us” as television better than other television because it can call out other, lesser TV shows.
3. It motivates Kevin to quit his shitty job in (slightly forced) extravagance, flipping chairs and breaking fake babies after he’s told he needs to do a dramatically heavy take without a shirt.
Ultimately, however, only the third point is true (and only because it really does happen, making it largely indisputable). “This Is Us” pretends it’s superior despite stooping to similar lows itself. The first shot of the series — and the primary focus of TV spots — is of Milo Ventimiglia’s bare ass, a more obvious and slightly less egregious hypocrisy than the fact that by parading a shirtless Kevin around on screen in “Manny,” they, too, are parading Justin Hartley around as a slab of beef, as well. Sure, he also gets to flaunt his artistic merit in a series with slightly more integrity than “Two and a Half Men,” but only slightly more.
And here’s where the night’s biggest twists come into play: NBC has been protecting these secrets like it should’ve been guarding the doors of 30 Rockefeller Plaza from Donald Trump’s presence (dating back to, say, 1994), and, to be fair, viewers’ response to “This Is Us” will more than likely be determined by their reaction to the pilot’s final sequence. If they roll their eyes when it’s revealed that not only are Kevin and Kate brother and sister, but Randall is also their adopted sibling, then they’re likely to explode with laughter when it turns out Jack and Rebecca are their parents.
Yes, through barren set design and classic clothing, “This Is Us” is able to mask the fact that Jack and Rebecca’s story takes place in the past. (Though, during a hospital scene midway through, there is a suspiciously dated heart monitor that might tip off observant viewers.) They lose one of the triplets during birth and Randall ends up in the nursery next to Kevin and Kate, an abandoned baby looking for a new home just as two parents need a third child to fill out their home-knitted onesies.
“It all works out” seems to be the main takeaway from the pilot, but where things specifically go from here is one whopping question mark. Perhaps if this was an episodic anthology series with new characters flooding in every week and new arcs every season, “This Is Us” could repeat the mysterious highs of its subjectively mediocre pilot (depending on how you like that ending). But as a serialized drama following this disconnected family with comparably minor problems — two of the three siblings are extravagantly well-off, two of the three have happy relationships and all three at least start to accomplish their goals in the pilot — the series will need a whole new set of questions if they ever hope to repeat the twist-driven structure of this first sampling. Where those will come from, I’m not sure. But until I hear them, “This Is Us” remains a particularly infuriating title for what seems like a secretively simple series.