This Is Us Isn’t Comfort TV, It’s Just Boring TV

In a show whose characters are defined only by their pasts, it makes it difficult for us to see — or care about — their futures

[Spoilers for the first 10 episodes, including December 6’s midseason finale, of This Is Us.]

For all the grisly iniquities that might befall a Victorian-era Londoner, so goes a theory, the Sherlock Holmes stories were ultimately a comfort to readers. Genre expectations — in this case, that of a solved mystery — furnished the illusion that any crime scene might be figured out with enough cunning, and all villainy would be punished. Fans living in or imagining urban chaos were presented with bow-tied neatness instead. It’s a reminder that every happy ending is a gift not just to characters, but to audiences as well.

Each episode of NBC’s This Is Us replicates this seesaw pattern of a right followed by a wrong. Wrapping up its fall season last night with a Christmas-themed installment, the genteelly feel-good family soap (returning on January 10) feels like flipping through a photo album with a therapist. “Here’s the childhood event that made me fat/attention-seeking/perfectionistic,” you can hear one of the grown Pearson triplets-with-an-asterisk saying, as we witness said event in a Reagan-era B-plot. The Big Three, as the Pearson children embarrassingly still call themselves at age 36, don’t have friends or hobbies or even jobs they need to go to. Their lives are consumed by the personality defects that the show devotedly traces back to early struggles — cause, effect, cause, effect. Those hokey flashbacks in clumsily written movies that explain everything about the protagonist? That’s every This Is Us episode.

Which isn’t to say that the device is never effective here. It frequently works to winsome effect with Randall (played by series gem Sterling K. Brown), who was impulsively adopted as a newborn by Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in the hospital after the stillbirth of one of their triplets — to replace the dead child, the adult Randall remarks in a dark mood. (Hence the show’s initial misleading marketing campaign, which focused on many of the characters sharing a birthday.) Jack and Rebecca were as prepared as they could be for triplets, but not for a transracial adoption, and the ways they fight the notion that their nonbiological child might need something more than they can provide — e.g., black friends, black role models, a barber who knows how to cut black hair without leaving razor burns — profoundly influence Randall’s fears and anxieties growing up.

Randall reunites with his ex-addict father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), in the pilot. William’s terminal cancer introduces an extra jolt of urgency to Randall’s efforts to figure out who he is and how to explain himself and his background to his young daughters. But, as last night’s midseason finale demonstrated, Brown is too often marshaled to give big, Emmy-reel speeches. (The show is awfully good at staging those none-too-subtle tugs at the heartstrings, but needs to space them out.) The completely random suicide attempt of Randall’s co-worker (Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson — though he’ll always be Liam McPoyle to me) was a rare but conspicuous and ham-handed attempt at wringing tears out of our eyes.

Judging from the tasteful mansion that Randall and his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), live in, the former math whiz and current Wall Street trader earns well into the six figures (at least). That affluence wouldn’t stand out if it weren’t for the fact that his brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), is a millionaire sitcom actor who walked away from millions more by deciding that he was too good for the lowbrow comedy he starred in, a 22-minute excuse to ogle male abs called The Manny. The intense scrutiny on the Pearsons’ emotional lives are meant to be relatable, but they never seem to have to go into the office — not even the third triplet, Kate (Chrissy Metz), a personal assistant. One recent story line involves the grown children’s disappointment that their mother (a hapless Moore without the gravitas or convincing old-age makeup to play a character of retirement age) is selling her vacation home. There’s also a muted but undeniable undercurrent of sexism in This Is Us, in that the female characters aren’t as well-defined as their male counterparts. Rebecca is largely someone for the saintly Randall to be legitimately angry at for the life-altering secret she’s kept from him all his life. But poor Kate gets the short shrift. It’s refreshing and important to see someone of Metz’s size given an inner life, but that milestone is undercut by the fact that Kate’s 300 or so pounds is the be-all and end-all of her existence — so much so that her inability to have any fun infects all of her scenes.

Comfort entertainment tends to be a personal, idiosyncratic thing — I personally don’t find crime procedurals all that appealing myself — so I can see how This Is Us might soothe others. But its patness isn’t for me. Sure, it’s interesting to discover where people are coming from. But I want to know where they’re going, too.