In North America, the new television season is about to start, and there’s one show that I’m really looking forward to—This Is Us. At the recent Emmys, not only was This Is Us nominated for best drama, but no fewer than seven actors received Emmy nominations for their work on the show. Sterling K. Brown won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Randall Pearson.
The premise is simple: vividly illustrate the life and experiences of an extended family across multiple generations. Show the big decisions as they are made and the small rituals that make a family a family. Show love and loss, fear and pride, and how people influence each other over the years.
The same description could be applied to many other shows. But here, it really works.
A small detour
One of the big differences between American TV and British TV is that America TV usually has more episodes. It’s totally acceptable and common for a British show to have a nine episode season. Sherlock, in fact, has three episode seasons. In the USA, however, most shows have 22 episodes a season, if not more.
While more content is great, it leads to the problem that it’s actually difficult to produce 22 episodes in a year. Or at least, it’s hard to do in a high-quality way. I think that’s one reason why police procedurals dominate the airwaves—such shows are formulaic, delivering an almost identical product every week without much thought required. What’s more, this strategy means the show can be rebroadcast and syndicated in pretty well any order.
For TV shows that aren’t just paint-by-numbers police procedurals, writers take a different approach. They create filler episodes—one-off episodes that don’t advance the show’s plot or characters, but rather just take up space. While this approach does deliver programming, it tends to dilute the impact of the series.
Probably the most egregious implementation of this strategy that I’ve seen is Lucifer. Lucifer has a great premise taken from Neil Gaiman’s iconic Sandman comics—Lucifer retires from running Hell to open up a nightclub in L.A. It’s a bizarre idea, but dripping with potential. The TV show was also able to cast the brilliantly charismatic Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar. With that combination, the show seemed like it would be compelling and innovative, a sure hit.
And it was compelling, until the writers realized that they needed to fill episodes. So, they took that great premise and decided to turn the series into a “buddy cop” TV show. They made Lucifer team up with a female detective, and the two of them go around solving crimes. It’s almost laughable if it weren’t so tragic—I never would have guessed that the series would go in that direction.
My only explanation for such a horrible decision was that the writers knew how to write cop shows for filler, but no idea how to write a supernatural drama. So, they decided to stick with what they knew. (And I’m really curious what Neil Gaiman thinks of that decision).
So how is This Is Us different?
In contrast, This Is Us doesn’t seem to have fallen into this filler trap. If there is filler among its 18 episodes, I certainly didn’t identify those episodes on first viewing. Every episode has meaningful developments and is cohesively tied to the episodes before and after it.
And that leads to brilliance. The show is compelling, with every episode touching your emotions. It isn’t my favorite show, but it’s the most emotionally engaging show I’ve ever watched. And by emotionally engaging, I mean, weepy. I feels impossible to watch any of the episodes and not feel pain ranging from pinpricks in the heart to a dagger twisting in the gut.
Now, I wouldn’t have thought this was possible. I always thought that in TV, you needed a long buildup, a slow ratcheting up of character and plot development over the course of a season in order to deliver the emotional impact later in the season. That’s why TV is better than movies, because you have the time to develop the story so the emotional impact can be powerful.
But This is Us blows that idea away.
Every episode advances the characters and the plot. Every episode is laden with subtext. And every episode is emotional. There is a slow build, but the writers don’t allow that slow build to stop them from creating jumbled piles of beautiful and sad moments along the path. They show each character evolve and grow, ripping our hearts out along the way.
The writers never get lazy. They deliver in every single episode. There’s just no filler in there.
The bottom line
So, I’d recommend This Is Us to anyone who likes weepy drama. The closest TV show I can compare it to is Friday Night Lights, but This is Us takes the emotion to the next level. It never lets the audience have a break, not even for a single episode.
Seven best actor nominations for one show is kind of nuts. But I think those nominations are actually deserved.