How 'This Is Us,' a warm-hearted family drama, became TV hit

It's not a new superhero show or crime drama. Yet the NBC show 'Us' has become one of the fall TV season's biggest successes so far and it seems to have achieved that by drawing in viewers with a story of everyday people dealing with relatable problems.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC/AP
'This Is Us' stars Sterling K. Brown (r.) and Susan Kelechi Watson.

The trailer was a simple one. The clip for the NBC fall TV show featured four stories – a married couple preparing to have triplets, a man searching for his father, a woman attempting to lose weight, and an actor searching for meaning.

“This is courage …. This is strength … This is forgiveness,” read the text in the trailer.

And last May, in less than two weeks, more than 70 million people had watched the trailer. (Is that a lot? Yes, it took nearly two months for the "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" movie trailer to reach as many viewers). What's more, the high expectations around this seemingly modest drama have been fulfilled in the first few episodes.

NBC’s “This Is Us” is one of the biggest hits of this fall TV season with its simple story of everyday people struggling with ordinary problems. The show demonstrates that a sense of humanity sells. No cops, superheroes, hospitals, or zombies in sight. Just heart-tugging storytelling. "This is Us" is one of those rare shows that resonates with critics as well as Millennial and baby boomer audiences. It's both retro and contemporary, honest and compelling. 

"Again and again, creator Dan Fogelman ('Crazy, Stupid Love') manages to take what could be clichéd situations – a weight-loss support group; an adopted kid confronting his biological dad – and infuses them with warmth and authenticity. The dialogue feels real. The people seem to really care for one another. And so we can relate, and empathize, and start to connect with these characters," writes TVLine's Dave Nemetz.

Its success illustrates not only that one of the major broadcasting networks can produce an original show that commands attention in the age of Netflix and HBO but that viewers are hungry for a program that authentically delivers on the struggles of ordinary people and their relationships. 

“The buzz that ‘This Is Us’ is getting shows that networks ... can still come up with a winning hand in this crazy world in which people watch television in so many different ways,” says Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of "The Plot to Save Socrates." “They still can reach millions of people and have a big impact on our popular culture. The key is coming up with original programming and that's what ‘This Is Us’ has done.”

As any reader of Charles Dickens knows, well-crafted empathy is engaging

“After that first episode, we really cared about those characters,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"This is Us," starring Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, and Sterling K. Brown, recently aired its fourth episode – it debuted on Sept. 20. The audience ratings for the Oct. 11 (third) episode intrigued industry watchers. That 10 p.m. Eastern time episode brought in more 18-49 year old viewers – a demographic valued by advertisers – than NBC’s popular reality competition “The Voice,” something which has never been done before by a show that aired after "Voice." In fact, that episode of "Us" drew about the same total viewers and the same audience of 18-49 year old viewers as the premiere.

“This is what people who run television want to see,” says Professor Levinson at Fordham University. What usually happens, he says, is that ratings decline following the series premiere. “And if it keeps declining after three, four, five episodes, you know that you don't really have a winner on your hands." But the fact that "This is Us" ratings improved indicates good word-of-mouth and that the show "has legs,” he says.

The show traces the lives of four characters who share the same birthday. But that's just a device. It's a show about relationships: brothers and sister, fathers and their children, husbands and wives. The premiere showed the day-to-day lives of several people apparently living in the present day, from Jack (Mr. Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Ms. Moore), who were expecting triplets, to Kate (Chrissy Metz), a woman who is attempting to lose weight; Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor who is wondering whether his fame is worth it; and Randall (Mr. Brown), who recently decided to look for his birth father. 

But viewers who tuned in for the premiere found their expectations upended at the end when it was revealed that the babies delivered to Jack and Rebecca were in fact the now adult Kate and Kevin (Randall was adopted by the couple). Kate, Kevin, and Randall’s stories are taking place in the present day, while Jack and Rebecca’s lives are a flashback to a past decade.

Mr. Thompson says that narrative twist and the four storylines are intriguing and offer some interesting opportunities for looking at the 1980s. But "that narrative scheme of telling it in these chopped-up time [sequences] ... wouldn't be enough to make people [watch] a show,” he says. “Once you get people to become interested in the characters, then there is the intrigue of the way in which the story is being told."

Levinson says part of the show’s success comes from the fact that some of the actors are relatively unknown to audiences and that adds to the authenticity and buy-in that this is a show about ordinary people – neighbors or workplace acquaintances – facing life's challenges in inspiring ways, often struggling with difficult moral choices.

For example, should I let my reformed addict father who abandoned me as a baby move in with my family? If my job is unfulfilling, should I quit? Is my identity defined by my weight?

Reason TV critic Glenn Garvin credits executive producer Fogelman as having "a sure touch with the script, pushing the throttle at a wrenching pace but pulling back with a joke when it threatens to redline into melodrama."

And Mr. Nemetz at TVLine concludes that "This is Us" proves that entertainment today can be successful by "looking deeply and honestly into human lives and the unseen strands that tie all of us together. It proves, once again, that we don’t need fancy bells and whistles to get invested in a TV drama. The truth, well told, is enough."

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