This was us.
In an era when it feels like most buzzworthy shows burst on the scene on a streaming service and viewers can watch an entire season in the time it takes to down a carton of Häagen-Dazs, “This Is Us” emerged as a refreshing outlier.
The concept of appointment TV has become as much of a relic as a black-and-white set with an antenna, but “This Is Us” retained that quality. It was watercooler television in an era when people don’t necessarily congregate at the watercooler anymore, thanks to the pandemic, but it still drew in viewers as part of a communal experience which led people to ask Did you see ‘This Is Us’ last night? via text or their social platforms.
“We might be one of the last watercooler appointment television shows,” star Jon Huertas told TODAY in a phone interview. “But I think it all comes down to the story and the writing and putting together the perfect cast.”
“I hope that we’re not the last one, but it’s nice to be able to end the show the way we want to and to go out like that. If that is the case, that we are the last great watercooler show, I would love to be a part of that,” he added.
“This Is Us” simultaneously entertained and moved viewers, while also respecting its audience, teasing us, but never making us wait too long with storylines that had people on edge.
Viewers left wondering how Jack died (perhaps the biggest and most important question during the series' run) got their answer without the show dragging out the mystery longer than necessary. The audience was justifiably curious, but never strung along for a period that felt excessive.
It continued to the end, too, with the story about Kate and Toby’s doomed relationship reaching a satisfying conclusion being played out in the final season. Even the knowledge that Rebecca would die did not keep viewers away; it actually enticed us to come back for more.
It’s the hallmark of a good show that people keep watching when they know what will happen, anyway. “This is Us” fans were as excited for the journey as they were sad reaching the destination.
The show was a hit right from the start, with a riveting pilot episode that was as dramatic as thunder and as dazzling as lightning. It let viewers know it would take place in different time periods while focusing on the same characters. Its exposition was unique in that it adhered to the old adage “show, don’t tell.”
It was masterful in letting viewers see how characters’ pasts shaped their present by actually showing us and not simply regurgitating the fact in dialogue to get us up to speed. We know Jack died. We saw it, we experienced it, years after it happened. It created an air of intimacy and interest among viewers, a new way for us to really care about the characters.
It was drama, told in an innovative way, the show's zig-zagging through the past, present and future never feeling overly schmaltzy. It felt relevant.
“This Is Us” also reminded us that life is not linear and doesn’t always come with clean, easily digestible conclusions. More often than not, it’s a rubbery noodle, with ups and downs and the ability to morph in directions no one sees coming.
“My life is messy. It’s complicated. And it’s hard,” Kate told Phillip on their first date when asking him why he’s choosing to be with her in an episode that aired in April during this final season.
She’s right. The Pearsons endured more than their share of troubles, but who among us hasn’t? And while viewers may not be able to identify with the specific situations the Big Three and their relatives often found themselves dealing with, it’s the experience of being a person and the challenges we encounter that kept people intrigued. The bonds we share with our family are more often than not complex and "This Is Us" let us know it's OK if we have conflict with those closest to us. Indeed, it may actually be the norm.
“‘This Is Us’ cuts to the humanity pretty well, I would say,” Logan Shroyer, who played teen Kevin, told TODAY in a phone interview. “It reveals and it’s talking about the humanity and the brokenness in people. And I think that’s universal.”
Randall, a Black child adopted by a white family, found his birth father and came to terms with his past. Kevin was the dreamer, whose love life never went according to plan. Kate was the sibling who had to deal with her weight issues. Jack was the father who escaped a childhood with an abusive father to turn into a father who’d do anything for his kids, only to die too young. And Rebecca was the mother whose struggle with Alzheimer’s shaped the end of the series. Black rights, teen sexuality, alcoholism and abuse are some of the other heady subjects treated with grace and — again — humanity.
A winner of four Emmy Awards, “This Is Us” was imitated, but never replicated. “Counsel of Dads” and “Ordinary Joe” tried to hit that emotional sweet spot, but never quite did. “The Village” and “A Million Little Pieces” also tried, but they couldn’t capture the same magic or generate the same buzz.
“This Is Us” did something that is especially difficult: It was unique, while maintaining a relatability. How many of us found out our dead uncle wasn’t really dead? How many of us have a sibling who is a huge TV star? How many of us have a sibling who is a different race and was abandoned after birth? Yet the ties that bound the Pearsons bound us all. We identified with the struggles of failed relationships, complicated family dynamics and the understanding that our pasts continue to shape us.
“There really is something for everyone,” Shroyer said.
This really was us.