I can tell you if NBC's new dramedy This Is Us is worth your time based on your reaction to the following: This Is Us opens with a Sufjan Stevens song (specifically, "Death With Dignity"). But that's because This Is Us, with its cheery witticisms and thoughtful pathos, is a Sufjan Stevens song, soft and deeply cathartic. Is it emotionally manipulative? Yes. Does it succeed in making you feel things? Of course. It's a spoonful of sugar — and there's nothing wrong with having a sweet tooth.
To the credit of series creator Dan Fogelman, This Is Us weaves a unique narrative. In the pilot episode — which premiered Tuesday night—we're introduced to four people who share the same birthday. As Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and his very pregnant wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), celebrate his 36th birthday, she goes into labor. Then there are the twins, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), also celebrating their 36th birthday — while each undergoes a mid-life crisis. Kate, overweight and unhappy, pledges to lose the weight, while her TV star brother yearns for something more creatively fulfilling than a crappy sitcom. Meanwhile, Randall (Sterling K. Brown, fresh off his much-deserved Emmy win for The People v. O.J. Simpson) spends his 36th birthday tracking down the biological father who abandoned him at a fire station when he was just a baby.
However, before the episode's end, This Is Us successfully delivers a genre twist befitting of Lost. When it's revealed that only two of Jack and Rebecca's babies survived the delivery, the pieces begin to fall into place. As the camera pans away from Jack — who's busy gazing at his newborn son and daughter, and the abandoned baby next to them, through the glass of the nursery — the lapel jackets and boxy televisions reveal that Jack and Rebecca's timeline actually takes place in 1980. And those babies in the nursery? They're Kate, Kevin, and Randall.
Say what you want about the syrupy twist, but Fogelman earns it — and he unwraps it carefully and with all the grace of a mother holding her child for the first time.
"Knowing the lessons we learn as kids, the experiences that we have, the idea of having the parents the same age as the kids and that kind of mirror reflection of what they're all going through, what they're all experiencing, it's a very genius move by Dan [Fogelman]," Ventimiglia told People. "I mean, he's taking the most simple story — it's a family — but then you're going to see mom and dad the same age as all the kids, and then you're going to see them at different ages."
But where does a show like this, one that unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, go from here? As the season progresses, each timeline will be thoroughly explored, as Jack and Rebecca's ambitions and struggles will undoubtedly mirror those of their children. For those of us with a Parenthood-size hole in our hearts, this is a welcome amount of television schmaltz, even if the likelihood of us hearing the phrase "There's no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade" is ever-infinite.
With its saccharine music and slice-of-life sentimentality, This Is Us is not for everybody. For those of us who routinely need a good cry before bedtime, however, it's an indulgence — a warm cup of tea with a splash of milk and one too many sugars. Enjoyably simple and sweet.