Right in the middle of the first episode of the TV comedy-drama series “This Is Us,” one of the characters – Kevin, an actor starring in a TV sitcom about a male au pair – experiences an epic meltdown on set. He accuses the studio audience (and by implication the viewers) that their own mediocrity is to blame for the inanity of the scripts he has to perform. In its devious way, this is how a fictional TV show stakes its claim to veracity – by labeling a TV show in its own fictional world a sham, while calling itself “the real thing.” (“This Is Us” is on NBC in the U.S., currently on a hiatus after 10 episodes, until Jan. 6; In Israel it can be seen on Yes Drama on Mondays at 22.00, and Yes VOD.)
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Following his outburst, Kevin (played by Justin Hartley, who has an Emmy for his role in CBS’s “The Young and the Restless”) is offered an opportunity to grovel and apologize to the network honchos, and continue to be a matinee idol. He declines and consequently leaves the green TV pastures of LA for the “veracity” (in his mind) of off-Broadway theater, where he learns that there are 50 (at least) shades of “real” when it comes to TV, theater and life.
Kevin is only one-third of the “Us.” One of the others is Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin’s biological twin, morbidly obese, working at the start of the series as the personal assistant to her spoiled and seemingly very immature brother. The other is Randall, who, as an abandoned black baby, was adopted by Rebecca and Jack Pearson after one of the triplets Rebecca was carrying died at birth. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), is an architect who shelves his own plans to provide for his family. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is a singer who gave up her career to be a full-time mom for the triplets. The series is roundly praised for its exceptionally strong cast; The show and the actors have been nominated for (and won) a number of awards, including the upcoming Golden Globes and SAG Awards.
One of the recurring roles, that of the obstetrician who delivers the triplets in place of Rebecca’s regular gynecologist, is played by Gerald McRaney (of “Major Dad” fame). He is the one who steps in at a crucial moment and supports Jack’s instinctive urge to adopt the abandoned baby in place of the stillborn child, aware (though far from fully) of the problems it is bound to create for all involved. His warm and worldly wise-and-weary personality highlights one of the series’ most endearing qualities: All the characters are basically very kind people, and you find yourself rooting for all of them and wishing them more than well, even if you know they are fictional characters in a fictional plot that – in the manner of TV plots – is an emotional manipulation perpetrated on the viewers by the producer (Dan Fogelman) and writers.
Moreover, each of the characters is endowed with exceptional psychotherapeutical talents, and almost every dialogue has one character brilliantly analyzing the others’ behavior, as if all were striving – even if it does not initially look like that – for some common good.
Odd one out
In a way, the plot deals with the age-old nature-nurture conundrum. Randall (portrayed exceptionally well by Sterling K. Brown), the adopted baby, grows up under the impression – unspoken, and therefore more menacing – that whatever he has achieved (he is by far the brightest of the trio) was due to a sort of double affirmative action. He was the odd one out: a black person in a white family, and the adopted same-age sibling of twins – who lead kind of symbiotic-schizophrenic personal lives of one soul in two bodies (one male, one female; one overly handsome and messed up, the other overly fat and very well organized). The parents – Jack and Rebecca – are keen that their offspring achieve the best lives possible, but learn that their idea of “best” is almost always at odds with the children’s own. In a way, whatever the parents’ best intentions, they will always fall short of the children’s expectations.
Randall’s biological father, William, is a poet, musician and former drug addict and is currently terminally ill (Ron Cephas creates a lovely and complex character). William turns up, and I won’t tell who knew about him in real time, what made him or her withhold the information, and why.
The adult Randall is a very successful young man, with a thriving career in finance (he trades commodities basing himself on weather patterns, which is as tricky and unexpected as the interpersonal relations within an extended family). He has a lovely and loving family, and he has to rearrange the story he tells himself about his own life according to new and startling bits of information about his younger self and his closest relatives.
Through the retold story of his life, the series spins a yarn about “individuation,” the miraculous emotional process in which one’s own ego recognizes, sets, and oversteps its own boundaries; it starts sometime in infancy, and ends with death. At the same time, the series seems to be saying – through the intertwining story lines of the characters – that the ability to “socialize,” be it innate or acquired – is essential for those who want to survive their own lives with at least a modicum of harmony. This, in my view, is the raison d’etre of the series title, “This Is Us.” It is above all about the “first person plural” that all families – happy or unhappy – are, a conglomerate of egos who learn to live separately and as collectives, hurting and healing, hating and loving, laughing and crying.
About crying, this is no spoiler, but the advice of a seasoned viewer (myself, having binged on all 10 available episodes one Saturday): keep that box of tissues handy. This is a major tear-jerker, sometimes as soapy as it gets, and yet by episode two you feel like the Pearsons are your own family, and you cry and care about them.
The rest of the season (18 episodes were ordered after the first one) will be broadcast weekly starting January 6. The 10th episode, “Last Christmas,” was directed by Helen Hunt, the actress who starred in “Mad About You” and got an Academy Award for her role in “As Good As It Gets.” And “This Is Us” is indeed as good as it gets.