This Is Us: Why we cry


Spoiler Alert: The following article will definitively give away major and minor plot points from the entire first season of This Is Us, beginning with the mind-blowing twist in the pilot episode. Consider yourself warned.

The first trailer for This Is Us first played during the Super Bowl in February 2016. A full seven months before the show was set to premiere. The trailer laid out a relatively simple concept. This Is Us was set up to be a story following several random characters who happened to share the same birthday, during their 36th year of life. The short trailer conveyed joy, heartbreak, struggle, triumph, loss and love. We did not learn much about the characters from the trailer, but we were collectively intrigued. Little did we know what the writers had in store.

The Pilot

I often (unfairly) judge new television shows based solely upon their pilot episodes. If I am not drawn in, entertained, or surprised by the first episode, I will rarely tune in for the next. I know full well that shows often get better as the episodes progress, but there are so many new shows each season that I am picky about those in which I invest time. This Is Us had me from the start. The pilot episode deftly set up three distinct stories while cutting back and forth between them. Story One followed Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple expecting triplets any minute. Story Two followed Randall, an extremely successful family man struggling with the decision of whether or not to meet his newly discovered birth father. Story Three followed twins Kevin and Kate. Kevin, a semi-famous yet unfulfilled and unhappy actor; Kate, Kevin’s personal assistant and best friend who was also struggling with her weight. The through line that connected the stories was the fact that as we followed these stories, Jack, Randall, Kevin and Kate, were all celebrating their 36th birthdays. Or, so we thought. This Is Us pulled off a clever plot twist few saw coming.

The Simplicity of a Cigarette

By the end of the pilot episode, Jack and Rebecca had tragically lost one of their triplets in childbirth. After a memorable heart-to-heart with Rebecca’s doctor about the importance of making lemonade out of lemons, Jack goes to watch his surviving infants in the nursery. As Jack looks down at his two new children through the window, another man looking into the nursery strikes up a conversation with him. It turns out, the mysterious man is not another new father. He is at the hospital because he brought in an infant that was abandoned at the fire station. As he indicates the infant in the crib next to Jack’s infants a light appears in Jack’s eye. Then, the mysterious man lights a cigarette. I repeat, he lights a cigarette! In a hospital. Outside a nursery filled with infants. The camera angle switches to a wide shot to show a waiting room filled with furniture and appliances from a different era. It is populated by background characters in 70’s clothing. Unbeknownst to the audience, the three stories were playing out over two time periods. Jack and Rebecca are the parents of Kevin, Kate and Randall! Jack and Rebecca’s story played out on Jack’s 36th birthday in 1979. Kate, Kevin and Randall’s stories played out on their 36th birthday in present day. Kevin and Kate are Jack and Rebecca’s surviving children. Randall is the child that had been abandoned at the fire station — who was adopted by Jack and Rebecca. Kevin, Kate and Randall are lovingly dubbed The Big Three by their parents. There were subtle clues throughout Jack and Rebecca’s story that suggested the time period, but on first viewing of a new show, viewers rarely scrutinize props and set pieces. Personally, I caught only one of these clues, but quickly disregarded it as I focused on the story. The writers were extremely clever, dropping only visual clues.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – AUGUST 14: Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia speak onstage at FYC Panel Event for 20th Century Fox and NBC’s ‘This Is Us’ at Paramount Studios on August 14, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Time Jumps

The double timeline is a identifying characteristic of This Is Us. Each episode swaps between at least two timelines — present day and some point from the past. Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia play Jack and Rebecca across the timelines with the help of clever costuming, hair and make-up. The triplets, however, are portrayed by three separate sets of actors — children, teenagers and adults. The point explored in the past always correlates to what is happening in the present. The past informs the present. This Is Us is not the first show to play with multiple timelines, others have tried before. The creative departments — hair, makeup, sets, props, music, costumes, etc. — each help make the viewer fully believe that we are watching the same people in different eras, all within each single episode.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – AUGUST 14: Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley speak onstage at FYC Panel Event for 20th Century Fox and NBC’s ‘This Is Us’ at Paramount Studios on August 14, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Calculated Writing

For a show that plays with time, the writers do not rush their storytelling. Stories are played out gradually, over several episodes. Characters are developed slowly and deliberately. The writers take their time parsing out what we need to know, but not before we need to know it. Though we, as an audience, had our suspicions of Jack’s present day whereabouts, they waited three or four episodes to confirm that Jack was no longer alive in present day. They then waited until very late in the season to give us a glimpse of his funeral. The wordless scene only gave us a clue about approximately when he died, based on the set of actors portraying the Big Three. They still have not explained how he died — although it has been teased that we may find out early in season 2. Cliffhangers and unanswered questions, just for the sake of having them, can be annoying and frustrating for the viewers. Careful and deliberate storytelling, on the other hand, keeps the audience captivated and eager to tune in for more.

Realistic and Relatable

I am from a small town. Generally, my friends, (both IRL and those I connect with on social media) follow and talk about televised sports, but rarely scripted television. This Is Us is the first scripted series I remember seeing my friends post about, exchanging comment after comment. Part of the draw is likely the fact that we are about the same age as the 36-year-old main characters. We really do see ourselves in these characters and their experiences; we relate to these characters as our peers. The joy, the loss, and the fear that life may not end up the way we planned. The panic that everyone but you has life all figured out. The paralyzing fear over what to do about the uncertainty. We have become emotionally invested in the lives of these fictional characters. We have grown up following Milo and Mandy since early in their careers. Watching them play fully realized adults struggling with identity, purpose and balance is infinitely relatable. Much has been made over the fact that people often cry while watching This Is Us. It’s a catharsis. A way to experience the extreme emotions as the characters do, with the safe disconnect that it is separate from our actual lives.

Interactive with Fans

This Is Us has taken full advantage of Twitter. Episodes are frequently live tweeted by cast members. The actors, creators and the official Twitter page for the show frequently interact with fans — with likes and comments on thoughts that fans share. I’m still relatively new to Twitter, so for me it’s a thrill to see the actors and the show pop up in my notifications. The fact that they take time to interact with fans shows how much they care about the show themselves. In fact, they are so involved with Twitter that those of us who consume our television through a streaming service instead of live have to tread carefully on social media until we have seen the latest episodes, for fear of being spoiled on the latest surprising development.

This Is Us shows real problems and real situations with realistic reactions to the circumstances. Life isn’t always pretty. Things turn out badly as often as they turn out well. There are people of all shapes and sizes, all colors and backgrounds, with all types of different trials and triumphs and views of the world. Any viewer can connect to someone or something that is explored in this show. The stories resonate.

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The second season of This Is Us premieres Tuesday, September 26th at 9/8c on NBC.