How This Is Us Changed TV Forever

Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Weeks before a beloved family series premieres its newest season, its creator announces a “significant” character will die during an upcoming episode. Immediately, fan theories pop up across social media, attempting to predict all the morbid details. Even the show’s cast members claim to be terrified the Grim Reaper is coming for their character.
This is a scenario lifted straight from the This Is Us playbook. After all, the time-hopping, multigenerational NBC tear-jerker, which kicked off its third season on Tuesday night with “Nine Bucks,” wrung nearly two seasons-worth of television out of the looming question of how Pearson family patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) died. Was it a drunk driving accident? A 9/11 tragedy? An evil washing machine? (Spoiler: A malfunctioning slow cooker and an MIA dog are to blame.)
But, fall TV’s latest macabre mystery has nothing to do with the sobbing Pearsons and their 50-plus years of family tragedies. Rather, fall TV’s ill-fated character belongs to Modern Family. Yes, the decade’s most dominant sitcom about zany family hijinks, dad jokes, and clown sight gags is about to murder a beloved character, and that death will leave “repercussions across several episodes” in its wake.
It’s official: This Is Us’s tear-stained, character-murdering sentimental fingerprints are all over television these days. The melodrama is playing out across many networks, genres, and perspectives, from other breakout smashes like 13 Reasons Why to new offerings this fall.
While television has been powered by family series since its inception, from retro classics like The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet and The Brady Bunch to recent cult favorites like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, there was something different about the way This Is Us broke the zeitgeist and sagging broadcast ratings trends after its September 2016 premiere.
The series was dubbed the most successful new show of 2016 weeks into its first season, garnering 10 million same-day viewers and 14.6 million with DVR viewing for its series premiere. Then, when the show returned for season 2, the premiere beat its own stellar numbers and became the most-watched episode of This Is Us ever. While pundits were surprised by This Is Us’ success in 2016, they’ve since realized the unapologetic sentimentality of the drama tapped into a desperate need for comfort television amid America’s relentlessly turbulent, divided atmosphere. The constant stream of tears produced by the hysterics of the Pearson family became national, cathartic therapy.
This fall, no show is more obviously the heir to the This Is Us throne than A Million Little Things, about the fallout of one man’s (Ron Livingston as the late Jon Dixon) death by suicide, premiering Wednesday, September 26. Like Dan Fogelman’s NBC juggernaut, the ABC drama features flashbacks, boundless emotional turmoil (the pilot grapples with cancer, alcoholism, infidelity, and suicidal depression in a mere 42 minutes), and a very gruesome mystery (why Jon ended his life, rather than the “how” of Jack’s death). Everything from the musical cues to the sweater-like coziness of the series echoes This Is Us.
Even Million’s creator D.J. Nash, who previously created NBC comedies like 2015’S Truth Be Told and 2014’s Growing Up Fisher, recognizes the connection between the two broadcast dramas. “Oh, there’s no question [a] half-hour guy [like me] is allowed to do an hour show because of the incredible work Dan and the gang over there has done,” Nash graciously told Refinery29 in between editing his first-ever drama series’ third episode. Although the writer has been working in television for almost 15 years, he had “never” seen an appetite for one of his pitches like he saw while shopping around A Million.
“NBC wanted it because essentially they wanted a companion for This Is Us. ABC wanted it because they wanted their version,” Nash recalled, adding with a genuine laugh, “I have benefited greatly from the success of [This Is Us].”
That doesn’t mean Nash is simply trying to crib This Is Us’ style, a style creator Fogelman recently defended against the label of “emotionally manipulative.” Nash's idea for A Million Little Things predates the Pearsons’ entrance into television and was conjured up during a breakfast meeting with Nash’s agents and lawyer over two years ago. “They said to me, ‘Write a show you would watch,’” he explained. “So I sat down and wrote a script.” The very personal result was the original idea for A Million, which evolved from Nash’s usual half-hour long style to an hour-long drama.
“I wanted it to reflect the life I know. I am inherently an optimistic person. I wake up everyday believing today’s the day great things will happen,” he explained in a very Jack Pearson, and now Jon Dixon, way. “I really wanted the show to capture that determination. It’s a determination that I personally have thanks to my friends, and I wanted this group of friends to have thanks to each other.”
In following his own tastes, Nash now realizes his series, keeping in line with the emotionality of Us and ABC sibling The Good Doctor, is able to tap into “something about where we are in time, where we are as a country.”
While A Million Little Things may come with all the This Is Us bells and whistles plus the humor of its creator — Nash is a former stand-up comedian — it’s not the only hour-long series that has seemingly been touched by NBC’s family drama. Just look at Netflix’s own breakout success story 13 Reasons Why, which began initial filming in early June 2016, smack dab in the middle of This Is Us’ record-breaking trailer release and its even more successful fall premiere.
On the surface, these two shows may appear to have little in common. One is a soapy, time-jumping family drama, and the other is an angsty (and controversial) teen saga about suicide, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity. Yet, when you really drill down to the bones of both series, you’ll see there are far more similarities than differences.
As with Us, the first season of 13 Reasons Why has its own grim mystery: the 13 moments that led to the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Much of the draw of the streaming series’ first batch of episodes is getting answers to that gnawing question, especially since audiences are left wondering how sweet, well-meaning Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) could be implicated in Hannah’s death. And, as with This Is Us, viewers get that explanation through countless interwoven flashbacks — flashbacks that become so intricate in season 2, one needs to use a high school sports calendar to understand what’s going on.
When 13 Reasons Why uses its time jumping habit well, it can rival the emotional heft of This Is Us’ weightiest episodes. For proof, look no further than season 2’s best episode, “The Smile At The End Of The Dock.” The installment slowly unravels the previously unknown love story of Hannah and Zach Dempsey (Riverdale alum Ross Butler). As we find out through “Smile,” the two had their first sexual experiences together and began a summer-long fling filled with genuinely sweet, thoughtful, and intimate moments. While Zach was never exactly a villain of this Netflix story, the flashbacks put the sweet jock into a completely new, complicated, and mostly flattering light.
“Smile” stands as a similar character clarification to the ones This Is Us has doled out for Miguel (Jon Huertas) and Shauna (Joy Brunson), the troubled mom of Déjà (Lyric Ross). Zach was really the romantic hero all along, and Miguel never stole his best friend’s wife. Shauna is more than just an ex-convict for Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) to yell at.
Once you see the connection between This Is Us and something so drastically different as 13 Reasons Why, it’s easy to the see where else the Us thread lives in television. Netflix’s dark horse fan-favorite sitcom Atypical, about a middle-class family with a son who has autism, is built off the same heady familial angst. It also has a 96% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. The aforementioned Good Doctor, 2017’s most successful new broadcast series, lives and dies by its high emotions and tight bonds. Even the CW’s already-buzzy upcoming teen sports drama All American, debuting October 10, seems touched by the in-its-feelings-ness of Us. Although the series shares a producer with Riverdale in Greg Berlanti, American’s obsession with familial relationships and pilot-closing twist is 100% Pearson.
And television’s dedication to ultra-emotional, sprawling narratives isn’t going to stop with this fall. NBC will premiere The Village during midseason. The tituar “village” is actually a Brooklyn apartment building where “the people who reside have built a bonded family of friends and neighbors,” according to the NBC website. Those people include an immigrant mom, her American-born son, a recently-returned veteran, a law student ,and his much older roommate. “These are the hopeful, heartwarming and challenging stories of life that prove family is everything, even if it's the one you make with the people around you,” NBC promises of The Village.
You should probably go buy that jumbo box of tissues right now.
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