This Is Us

I hadn’t initially planned on seeing This Is Us, Dan Fogelman’s new NBC drama. The billboards and advertising plastered around Los Angeles made it look uninteresting. I’m not against television dramas, I loved Parenthood and Friday Night Lights (although the advertising for those shows didn’t interest me either, it was the buzz from friends that brought me to them). And then the This Is Us reviews came out just before its premiere teasing a big unexpected twist at the end of the pilot episode. Okay, you got me. So I watched it and I have a few thoughts on the matter. Also, Dan Fogelman has done some interviews explaining what the twist will mean for the rest of the series, so if you’re curious about that, join me.

This Is Us twist

This Is Us Twist Revealed

For those of you who didn’t watch the This Is Us pilot episode (I’m not sure why you’re reading this, but okay…), the show is set up as an ensemble of stories: Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) are expecting triplets, actor Kevin (Justin Hartley) is unhappy with the work he is doing on television, Kate (Chrissy Metz) is overweight and unhappy with herself, and a successful businessman Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is on the search for his father who abandoned him at a fire station as a baby.

A little bit into the episode it is revealed that Kevin and Kate are twins and that two people we didn’t think could be connected, are actually related. And the big twist at the end of the episode happens when Rebecca goes into labor and loses one of her babies during birth. It is revealed that Rebecca and Jack are the father to not only Kevin and Kate but also Randall, who they adopt after learning of his story in the delivery room. That’s right, the Rebecca and Jack story was actually set 30 or so years earlier and edited throughout the modern day story.

This Is Us

It was an interesting twist that I didn’t see coming. Because the hipster look is sometimes inspired by the 1970’s, we never question Jack and Rebecca’s fashions or grooming choices earlier in the story. Also the fact that Randall is a person of color makes you assume that he probably isn’t related to Kevin and Kate. It’s cleverly constructed, yet there are hints of the reveal throughout. For example, the episode begins focusing on a box with the label “’75-79 photos” In Jack and Rebecca’s apartment. Later there is a line of dialog where they ask “Do you remember what Dad used to say when something crappy would happen to us?” right before cutting to Jack.

But what purpose does it serve other than as a surprise for the audience? The big twist in a film like The Sixth Sense is great because we are in the shoes of Bruce Willis’ character Dr. Malcolm Crowe, discovering that he is dead at the same moment that he does. Same with Empire Strikes Back or Fight Club or a hundred other great movies with twist endings.

The reveal at the end of This Is Us affects none of the characters on the show, it is only a revelation for us. I’m not saying that it is necessarily a gimmick, as it may serve a narrative purpose. But I’m not sure what the payoff in the premiere episode means for the rest of the series.

Thankfully, show creator Dan Fogelman has done some interviews explaining the motivation behind the reveal was realizing how many of his 30-something friends had wildly different lives and being touched by that realization. He admits that “the twist came as I started writing, honestly. It wasn’t part of the conception.” This is very telling and makes me skeptical of the series that will follow.

This Is Us

What Will The Twist Mean For The Rest Of The Series?

But I’m still interested to find out what will happen next. Will Katie, Kevin and Randall’s stories interact with their parents in the past or present? This is what Fogleman told Deadline:

Yes, structurally the show is very much the same as the pilot – we move between the lives of all these people. But now, obviously, all the people are connected. And one of those stories is the story of the parents of the other three. And that storyline moves around in time… Our second episode picks up 8 years later (in that storyline). Their marriage is in a very different place, the kids are older. Our third episode returns them to the pilot’s time period, as they’re leaving the hospital with the babies. In the course of the first two seasons of the show, we will be unfolding the big picture story of this family and this marriage – seeing how past informs the present, etc. We even explore time before Milo and Mandy had kids. Its ambitious stuff and explaining it makes my face hurt. You kind of just have to watch and it makes sense.

Fogelman also explains that Randall lives on the east coast, far away from his adopted siblings living in LA: “He stayed closer to his parents while Kevin (and Kate via Kevin) chased his Hollywood dreams. They are definitely not estranged, and you’ll see a lot more of them together as the season moves along. There is a particularly strong rivalry/loaded stuff between Randall and Kevin (Justin Hartley’s character).”

As for if the show will continue to try to surprise the audience, Fogleman tells EW:

I think if you were going in blindly after episode 1, you’re like, “Whew, wow. I wonder what happens next.” I think you get a bunch of surprises, but two big surprises. The start of episode 2 is a surprise, and the end of it is really a surprise…. So there are surprises and you’re unfolding this family a little bit, because now the cat’s out of the bag about the device of the show, and now we can start expanding the audience’s knowledge. The only way I can describe it for people is: Imagine that you had 10 home videos of your childhood and your life, and you gave them to somebody and mixed them all up in a bag and said, “Watch them,” but you were watching them a little out of order. And that’s kind of how we’re going to open up the family… Some episodes are going to end with these big surprises. Some are going to end with a huge sense of completion and emotional fulfillment.

He also reveals that “there are little things in the pilot that you won’t notice that are the entire basis of the third episode of the show, and there are things that are going to happen in this season in the seventh episode that will be the most important thing that happens in the third season of the show.” Interesting. Okay, maybe This Is Us has my attention, and I’m just curious how long it can keep it.

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