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This Is Us becomes breakout hit by focusing on family

Unexpectedly popular new NBC show emphasizes everyday conflict and reconciliation

Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore in a scene from This Is Us. NBC Universal

This Is Us becomes breakout hit by focusing on family

NBC likely knew it had scored the breakout hit of the 2016 fall television season after the third episode of the dramedy This Is Us. Following a strong premiere, the show dropped slightly in the ratings, the typical trajectory for nearly all new shows. What’s not typical is for ratings to suddenly bounce back for the third episode. In fact, the last time it happened at NBC was 10 years ago—with a show called Friday Night Lights.

But even before this particular parallel, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman was drawing comparisons between his show and the beloved small-town football drama.

“If you look at a show like Friday Night Lights, which I loved, my favorite moments were just with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton navigating raising a family and a marriage,” Fogelman told Entertainment Weekly in May, months before This Is Us debuted.

While it has plenty of merit in its own right, This Is Us isn’t as good as Friday Night Lights. It has too many monologues and they’re too unnaturally eloquent and prolonged. (Fogelman’s also a fan of The West Wing, and it shows.) And while most of the characters are likable, not one reaches the bone-deep authenticity of Buddy Gerrity, let alone Coach Taylor.

But that could be why This Is Us, which shares the Friday Night Lights focus on marital and parental relationships but does so with less complexity, seems set to become the ratings success Friday Night Lights never was. It offers easier-to-define good feelings on subject matter that goes largely unexplored in today’s television landscape—the quiet conflicts and reconciliations between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters. The show’s viral trailer, which shocked the industry by racking up more than 70 million views in less than two weeks, put it this way: This Is Us focuses on courage, strength, and forgiveness within ordinary family relationships.

The show follows the lives of four people who happen to share the same birthday: Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) who, along with his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore), is raising three kids, one of whom is black and adopted; Kevin (Justin Hartley), a successful sitcom actor who longs for more meaningful work; his sister Kate (Chrissy Metz), a single woman trying to simultaneously pursue major weight loss and a new romance; and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a loving dad and husband struggling to build a relationship with the biological father who abandoned him.

That’s a lot of drama to work with, and it says a lot about the current state of television that with hundreds of new shows debuting every year, so few are interested in exploring such real and relatable stuff. Because for every moment that rings a little corny or too self-conscious, This is Us offers something that feels true to our own foibles and frustrations within a family. Like when handsome Kevin realizes he leans on Kate too much, preventing her from finding a life outside of being his sister and personal assistant. In one moment, he does the loving thing and fires her. In the next, selfish panic returns and he frantically calls her to book his hotels and reassure him he’s talented.

Family habits, years in the making, are hard to break. And we often need to restart several times to travel down a new road.

That said, This is Us doesn’t come at these problems with a Christian worldview, so while the first five episodes avoid anything like a gratuitous sex scene, it’s clear these are non-believing people doing what seems right to them. Kate sleeps with her boyfriend and some racy joking plays a part in their flirting. But the show’s overall interest is family, rather than scandal or shock. That’s likely why it’s scoring big numbers with viewers of all ages, included those elusive millennials.

This Is Us airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. EST.

Megan Basham

Megan is a former film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C.



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