One thing that always got me about This is Us, which wrapped up its six-year run on NBC on May 24, was its structure. The series had an elaborate timeline, spanning about 75 years and four generations. The show was created by Dan Fogelman, something of a journeyman screenwriter and TV showrunner, who the year before This is Us created the fantastic, short-lived musical TV series Galavant.
It’s the type of storytelling that American popular culture has typically used for things like The X-Files and even Star Wars, but in the case of This is Us, it’s the story of one family and their frequently tear-jerking shenanigans.
It was quite an achievement to put that continuity together and keep it up for six years
Say this of This is Us: It started well, and ended even better, even with some stumbles in between. And while the series was usually a comforting watch — as comforting as it could be while leaving much of its audience in tears — it was quite an achievement to put that continuity together and keep it up for six years (Vulture published an elaborate timeline of the show’s continuity).
One secret weapon of the series? Its beautiful, guitar-driven musical score, composed by Siddhartha Khosla, provided probably the most consistently great music on a TV series since Friday Night Lights:
The ingenious pilot of This is Us, which premiered in September of 2016, introduced four characters, all of whom were celebrating their 36th birthday — hardworking Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), aspiring singer Kate (Chrissy Metz), high-strung businessman Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and actor Kevin (Justin Hartley).
The show was extremely cagey, until the last possible moment, about how these people were related; it turned out the latter three were siblings, Jack was their father, and the Jack scenes were taking place decades before the other storylines, on the day of the birth of the other three. The couple had triplets, one of whom was stillborn; they ended up adopting Randall.
The show’s best storylines included Randall’s reconnection with his biological father
This is Us would use a similar structure for its entire run, with most episodes telling one episode in the present day, and another in the past, with the “Big Three” as children with their parents, Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Storylines also would occasionally jump to the distant past or future, including looks at the grown child of two of the characters, with the moment of the show’s endgame glimpsed years earlier in a flash-forward.
The show’s best storylines included Randall’s reconnection with his biological father William (a fantastic Ron Cephas Jones), and an investigation into Jack’s time in Vietnam, leading to the discovery of his long-lost brother Nicky (Griffin Dunne). On the minus side, the show dragged out the question of how Jack died for a ridiculously long time, complete with multiple red herrings, and way more of Kate’s plots were about her weight than they were about anything else.
Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson was always, by far, the best character on the show, with the most interesting arc. He was a Black man adopted into a white family and long struggling to find his place in the world, and Brown deservedly won an Emmy and Golden Globe.
Sure, there was the mid-series plot where he inexplicably decided to run for the Philadelphia City Council, despite never having lived in that city, and succeeded. A few years later, a real-life celebrity, Dr. Oz, would try the same thing in the same state; Oz may very well have been a neighbor of the Pearsons in northern New Jersey.
The show also cast Mandy Moore, a teen pop star from around the turn of the millennium who had an abbreviated movie star run after that, as the matriarch of the family, a part that frequently required her to play decades older than her real age.
Stuck the Landing
Much like How I Met Your Mother, This is Us settled on a series finale so early on that they filmed part of it years in advance when some of the characters were notably young. But unlike How I Met Your Mother, it actually worked.
This is Us really nailed its endgame, especially in the last two episodes. The penultimate episode, one of the very best of the series, had Moore’s Rebecca on her deathbed, interacting with various important people from throughout her life, including William, and familiar faces like the doctor (Gerald McRaney) who delivered her children. The finale, meanwhile, was more low-key but featured an extended homage to “Our Town,” with Rebecca essentially re-living a single day of her life.
At a time when network TV is far away from the center of the conversation when it comes to original shows, This is Us may have been the last of the great network dramas. And it got there thanks to fantastic, unique storytelling.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.