It’s fair to say Channel 4 hasn’t had much luck picking the right US imports of late. Their last attempt Hostages was cancelled in the States pretty much as soon as it started and The Event was less of an event and more of confusing damp squib.
They have had better success with 2011’s Homeland which manged to captivate viewers and critics alike but the good old days of the BIG US shows airing on the channel seem pretty much behind them.
That was until the announcement that the channel had acquired NBC’s mega-hit This is Us. In lots of ways the decision seems an odd one. It’s 18 episodes in length which is a lot for a broadcaster like Channel 4 to commit to and it’s a fairly simple show. It’s not edge of your seat stuff like Homeland and it’s not full of action. On the other hand what Channel 4 have done is a stroke of genius. They’ve bought the best new US show for a long time. They’re making sure they promote it heavily and they’re putting it front line and centre in a primetime slot.
The premise is simple: we follow a set of people who share a birthday. We begin with birthday boy Jack. His wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is pregnant with their triplets and ready to pop. Next up we meet Kate (Chrissy Metz) who stares longingly into her fridge which is plastered with post it notes reminding her of the calories of each food. Then actor Kevin (Justin Hartley) who is celebrating his birthday in a room with two young women who are in awe of him. Finally we meet Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a hard working man with a young family who is still haunted by being left as a baby.
As the seemingly unconnected stories play side by side we slowly learn more about each character. Kevin’s adored by millions in the lead role of a sitcom called ‘The Manny’ but the show leaves him unfulfilled and he’s desperate to spread his wings further. We learn early on that Kate is his sister. She too is unfulfilled. She’s unhappy with her size, lacks self confidence and feels she’s lost her chance at being a mum and a wife. As the pair turn 36 she resolves to ‘lose the damn weight’ and focus on getting her life back.
What might sound like quite a downbeat start to a new drama manages to be the complete opposite. Within minutes of the first episode I immediately felt connected to the characters. This is a drama about people living their lives and for that to work the audience have to care enough about the characters to go on the ‘journey’ with them. I’m not sure what show creator Dan Fogelman does in the first few scenes but he expertly gets the audience on the side of each and every one of his characters.
When we meet Randall again he’s cheering on his young daughters at a ‘soccer’ match when he announces to his wife that he’s found his father. His mother was a crack addict and his father was the person who left him at a fire station. The scene isn’t full of the melodramatics you might have come to expect and it finishes with Randall cheering on his daughter as she scores her first goal.
As I say the story is a simple one but it never gets boring, nor does it veer into the cliched or the overly sentimental.
When we meet Kate again she has stayed true to her word and has joined a support group. As she listens to her classmates get emotional about eating a whole pizza or the worries of carrying a few extra pounds she catches the eye of Toby. He’s someone who takes a less serious approach to proceedings and the pair strike up a friendship with Toby asking, “do you wanna be fat friends?”
Just as we get engrossed in their new story, we’re back with Randall who has decided to confront the father who abandoned him. I won’t spoil the speech that follows but suffice it’s wonderful piece of a dialogue that leads to father and son reuniting.
This is an opening episode that throws a lot at its characters and at the audience, but despite its short running time nothing ever feels rushed. It’s all very believable and genuine we’re given enough time with each of the characters to get to know them properly.
It is in the final ten minutes that we learn that Rebecca has lost the third triplet. The doctor informs a waiting Jack that the second baby is a girl and the third baby was a boy who subsequently died after the umbilical chord cut off his supply of oxygen. As Randall introduces his father to his family and Toby meets Kevin the audience is left wondering quite how Jack and Rebecca’s story fits in. Just as I began to scratch my head as to where we going here the action flips back to Jack looking at his twins in the hospital. As he stares lovingly from the behind the glass he is joined by a man and the pair strike up conversation.
It is here where Fogelman and his team pull the rug out from under their audience with the reveal that Jack and Rebecca are the parents of Kate and Kevin! The camera slowly pans round to reveal that their part of the story had been set in an entirely new era and that we had actually witnessed the birth of two of our leads.
Maybe some of you saw this coming a mile off but I was so immersed in each story that when it was finally revealed that the Rebecca and Jack scenes were flashback scenes I was stunned. When it was revealed the pair had also adopted the baby from the firestation and that he became Randall I was flawed further. I just thought it was so clever. I genuinely hadn’t seen it coming.
I saw this back in September when it started on NBC and was desperate to see where it goes from there. Without wishing to spoil it for those has keen as me I can assure you that the pace continues and that somehow Fogelman and his team manage to keep delivering on the twists and turns as they tell the complicated family tale.
It’s a show populated by gentle humour and likeable characters that you can’t help but root for. It’s a show that shines a light on the normality of life without being dull or predictable. It’s a show about nice people. It’s a show I actually feel genuine affection for and I’m just hoping an audience that might be weary of US drama will be drawn to it.
I have slight concerns about whether 4 have done the right thing by airing it at this time of year as there’s a lot of things on between now and Christmas and it might be better served if they had waited till the new year, but I’m hoping people will be curious enough to tune in. Once they do I know they’ll be hooked!
This is Us Continues Tuesday 9pm on Channel 4