Dan Fogelman is here to make you cry. The diabolical producer — late of Galavant and Grandfathered — is debuting two heartstring-tugging series this fall: the “what if a woman made the major leagues?” drama Pitch on Fox and the “it’s everyone’s 36th birthday!” drama This Is Us on NBC. The latter of which is, ostensibly, why you and I are here today. I’ll be your companion for this first season outing, ready to hold your hand and pass a Kleenex, as needed. (I’ve already expensed a 36-pack from Costco. Shhh, don’t tell accounting!) Let’s get the sobfest started!
As I mentioned above, the series’ conceit, on its face, is a pretty simple one: We meet four seeming strangers as they all turn the age of 36. The Birthday Bunch includes:
- Jack (Milo Ventimiglia): Jack is both a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (hence the Terrible Towel loincloth) and the owner of a fine set of glutes. He is married to the very pregnant Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who is carrying triplets. Despite her reservations, Rebecca agrees to give Jack a sexy birthday dance in keeping with their annual tradition — with lacy lingerie on top of her clothing. And it’s totally turning Jack on… until Rebecca’s water breaks…
- Kate (Chrissy Metz): We meet Kate in front of her refrigerator, which is chock-full of tempting items plastered with finger-wagging Post-it notes like “Throw this crap out” or “Do not dare eat this cake before your party, Kate. Love, Kate.” (Who buys their own birthday cake?) Anyway, it’s a rather clichéd way to introduce a character struggling with her weight, and the scene continues as we watch Kate weigh herself, going so far as to take off her earrings as though those extra few ounces will make the difference. I’m hoping for nuanced character development here. We’ll see.
- Randall (freshly minted Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown): Randall is some sort of important businessman. We know this from his corner office (which is basically the size of my Brooklyn studio) and the mess of scary-looking graphs and charts cluttering his computer desktop. He’s married to Beth, and they have two young daughters: one adept at soccer and the other a French braid enthusiast.
- Kevin (Justin Hartley): And then there’s Kevin, who — with his impossibly square jaw and even more impossibly chiseled abs — looks like he walked straight out of central casting for a Freeform sitcom. In fact, he is the star of just such a TV series called The Man-ny. But he’s having something of an existential crisis about his career path. He’s pretty sure The Challenger explosion (yeah, the one way back in 1986) really messed him up. “Maybe that’s when I realized that trying to change the world just leads to being blown up into little pieces all over Florida,” he theorizes. “Maybe that’s how I ended up as The Man-ny.” Or is he The Nihilist? As he contemplates his fate, he gets a call from his sister…
…Who is Kate! The two are siblings. And after falling off the scale (quite literally), she calls her brother to come over and console her.
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“We are deep in the threes,” she tells him, as he arrives with a gallon of ice cream to ice her bruised foot (and ego). “How did I get here?” Kate desperately wants all the trappings of her parents’ life: a career, a husband, children, but feels like her weight has stymied her.
“I ate my dream life away,” she sighs.
NEXT: Ghost dad [pagebreak]
By this time, Jack and Rebecca have made it to the hospital where they’re greeted with some unfortunate news: Rebecca’s doctor has suffered a medical set-back (that pesky appendix!) and another doctor (played by Gerald McRaney) is filling in. He’s aware of their situation — the triplets and their complicated positioning — and is fully committed to delivering these babies.
“I’m also aware that I’m a complete stranger to you and this is the biggest moment of your life,” he tells them. “I am the best of the best, and I swear to you on the lives of my children and my grandchildren that I am up to the task.” (Did this guy take the “Coach Taylor Pep Talk Class” at the Learning Annex or what?!)
Meanwhile, Randall and wife Beth are cheering on their daughters at their adjacent soccer games when Randall reveals a secret he’s been keeping: He’s not only been searching for his biological father but has found him. Apparently, Randall was left on a fire station doorstep by his junkie dad after his crack-addict mom died in childbirth.
“Why’d you find him?” Beth asks.
“I don’t know,” Randall responds.
Yet, despite his internal confusion (and some misgivings), he later shows up on his biological dad’s doorstep with righteous indignation to spare. He tells him about how he was raised by two incredible parents. How he bought his $143,000 car with cash because he could. And that he turned out just fine without his bad dad.
“Do you want to come in?” dad William responds.
“Okay,” Randall quickly agrees.
And William, surprisingly, doesn’t try to make any excuses for his behavior. In fact, he doesn’t even remember his actions on that day, he was so out of it. He’s clean now, but Randall once again tells him off, only to be thwarted. And so, he invites William over to meet his grandkids.
But, as it turns out, there won’t be too much time for bonding: William is sick. Scratch that. William is dying. How Randall plans to handle this revelation remains to be seen — though we do know he gives his father a bed to sleep in for the night.
NEXT: The start of Us [pagebreak]
Kate has taken her can-do spirit to a support group for people who are overweight, where a fellow attendee catches her eye. The two meet up at the coffee table, and Toby (that’s his name) introduces himself.
“Do you want to be fat friends?” he asks.
“Sure,” she says. “But I’m going to lose the weight.”
He replies that he probably won’t, to which she responds, “I can’t fall for a fat person right now.”
“I guess I’ll lose the weight then,” he slyly replies.
Sure enough, the two go out on a date a few days later. And their banter is pretty on point, as Toby jokes about his crush on Sally Field and how dessert is his life’s work. When he drops Kate back home, Toby’s offended that she tries to shut the door without so much as a goodnight kiss. She agrees to let him in for a glass of water (they’ve already had their six ounces of wine, after all).
“Do you want to fool around?” he soon asks. To which she promptly responds no. He’s clearly wounded, but Kate explains that it’s been a while and she’s anxious about it. Just as it looks like she’s going to concede, they’re interrupted by Kevin. A very drunk Kevin. He finally had enough with his underdeveloped role and frequent (and unnecessarily shirtless) takes on The Man-ny and had a huge meltdown on the set while guest star Alan Thicke watched. (Growing Pains, indeed!)
But back to the hospital first, because Dr. K is trying to prepare Jack and Rebecca for the worst. It’s a complicated pregnancy, but Jack just won’t have any of it. “Only good things are going to happen here today,” he resolves. However, as Rebecca begins to deliver the first baby (a boy!) she knows that something isn’t right. The doctor tells her to rest and that he’ll take it from there. Jack is ushered out of the delivery room.
When Dr. K finally emerges to update Jack, he’s grim. Rebecca’s vitals are good, but they lost of one of the babies. The second is a healthy girl. But the third, a boy, had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was stillborn.
The physician, it turns out, knows how Jack feels — he lost his first-born, too. But he says that the experience put him on a path to save countless other babies.
“I like to think that maybe one day you’ll be an old man, like me, talking a younger man’s ear off, explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.”
They’re wise words — ones we see, very shortly, are put into action by Jack.
As the new father goes to gaze at his newborns in the nursery, he’s met at the glass partition by another man. He’s not a father though — he’s a fireman who has brought in a child abandoned at his station.
And if the series’ twist wasn’t becoming readily apparent to you, perhaps Kate’s advice to flailing Kevin will ring a few bells: “What did Dad say about lemons?” she asks. “There is no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.”
That is the moment that four disparate strangers crystallize into a family. And we, the audience, bawl.
What did you all think of This Is Us? Where do you think the show is headed from here? Can it possibly remain this good? Spill all your insights, observations, and admissions of tears in the comments below, and let’s reconvene next week!