Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hope for Network Drama? This Is Us and Pitch

Justin Hartley (centre) in This Is Us. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

It’s become something of a truism in TV criticism that the networks have ceded virtually all of their creative prestige (and, increasingly, their ratings) to cable and streaming outlets such as FX, HBO, and Netflix. With the recent conclusion of The Good Wife, which at its height was arguably the best thing on TV, there didn’t appear to be much worth watching. A new slate of network shows that featured multiple time-travel thrillers and another Kevin James-fronted sitcom didn’t threaten to shake up this dynamic very much. However, two new shows, NBC’s This Is Us and Fox’s Pitch, offer some suggestions for the direction in which networks might have to go if they want to produce material that can compete in the era of so-called “Peak TV.” This isn’t a coincidence: both are narratively adventurous and rely heavily on flashbacks and plot twists, and both were created (or, in the case of Pitch, co-created with Rick Singer) by Dan Fogelman. Fogelman has established a track record as a writer and producer capable of creating movies and TV shows that are entertaining and unique; his romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love was one of the few enjoyable examples of that genre in recent memory, and the late, underappreciated Galavant was an oftentimes delightful TV musical that presaged the cult success of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

This Is Us has been the more successful and high-profile of Fogelman’s new shows, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a remarkably effective tear-jerker, a term that I don’t necessarily use in a pejorative sense. This Is Us is about five people: husband and wife Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), twins Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown). The show’s overarching concern is an exploration of the nature of family. Jack and Rebecca are young parents struggling to raise triplets, while Kate, who is overweight and has been content to serve as personal assistant to her successful actor brother, is trying to figure out how to recalibrate their relationship after he hits a professional crisis and she finally meets a man who seems willing to accept and love her. Randall’s storyline is perhaps the most interesting: he rediscovers his birth father, William, (Ron Cephas Jones), who is dying of cancer, and invites him to come live with his family, leading to friction with his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). It’s no great spoiler to reveal that all of these characters are related, although the way in which the show reveals the nature of the connection is one of the more effective narrative twists in recent memory.

Speaking of that twist, one of the most enjoyable parts of This Is Us is the way that it uses its narrative twists and turns to reveal and redefine character, rather than for simple shock value. It also plays with time in a smart way: we see events play out over the course of decades. (The one problem with this is that the show’s makeup department seems a bit out of its depth: some of the actors’ old-age makeup is so bad as to distract from the performances,) And when their impact on the present is revealed, it casts relationships between the characters in an entirely new light. There are some weaker elements: when Kevin quits the insipid network comedy that’s made him wealthy and famous, he does so in an over-the-top rant that feels like Fogelman is lecturing all of us poor dumb slobs who might enjoy such fare from time to time (it also doesn’t help that Hartley gives one of the more wooden performances in the show).

There are a number of solid performances in This Is Us (Ventimiglia and Moore are pleasant surprises), but the standout is Sterling K. Brown, who recently won an Emmy for his quiet but moving work in American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. His scenes with Cephas Jones (father of Jasmine Cephas Jones, one of the cast members of the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton) are especially powerful; when he first hunts down and meets William, Randall confidently tells him off, then pauses. Brown lets us see Randall’s tough fa├žade begin to crumble as he stands there, and all of a sudden he’s turning into a little boy again, eager to please the father that he never knew. It’s a moment that’s both comic and poignant, and it hints at some of the internal conflicts that drive Randall. Long-term, I’ll be curious to see how This Is Us maintains its juggling act and balances past and present. It’s refreshing to see a show whose main focus is uncovering and illuminating the dynamics between its characters, rather than construct some crazy quilt of narrative complexity. Hopefully the show can maintain that quality as it goes forward.

Kylie Bunbury (right) in Pitch.

I have similar questions about Fox’s Pitch, although it might be pointless to worry about the long-term with this show, since its rollout was widely perceived to have been botched and its ratings are weak. Pitch follows Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), a pitcher who becomes the first woman to play in major league baseball. She encounters all the resistance you might expect, but one of the show’s many admirable qualities is the way in which it resists turning this into a black-and-white melodrama pitting a feminist hero against hateful cavemen. Ginny’s a lifelong ballplayer who’s only seeking to fit in among her fellow players, impossible though that might be. Her teammates, such as aging catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and her former minor league teammate Blip Sanders (Mo McRae), are mostly supportive. Behind the scenes, her arrival on the team (she plays for the San Diego Padres – major league baseball agreed to let Fox use its team names, logos, and other intellectual property for the show) causes chaos for her manager, Al (Dan Lauria) and general manager Oscar (Mark Consuelos). Pitch is smart about keeping its focus on Ginny as an individual, which helps us to see how the outpouring of attention and support she receives threatens to crush her as much as buoy her up.

In keeping with its subtler approach to the social issues raised by its premise, Pitch is first and foremost a workplace drama. It derives much of its drama from the intricacies of the game – for instance, Ginny knows that she can’t hope to equal the speed and power of male pitchers, so she works on developing trickier, more nuanced pitches – and from the realities of life in the big leagues. Beyond baseball, it’s a show about the sacrifices required of those who want to rise to the top of their profession: Blip misses trips to DisneyWorld with his family, Mike’s body is falling apart after years of vigorous activity, and Ginny has had to live her entire life under enormous pressure and without any of the typical coming-of-age experiences of a young woman. As with This Is Us, Pitch relies on frequent flashbacks and surprising twists to deepen our sense of character, although that device isn’t always as effective here. A recent episode that fleshed out Ginny’s troubled relationship with her mother was often moving, but another episode that featured a dramatic surprise reunion between Ginny and an ex-boyfriend strayed into soap opera territory. And as with This Is Us, I’m curious as to what Pitch’s long-term game is, as the novelty of having a woman in the majors will at some point presumably wear off.

Among the cast, Bunbury is obviously the main focus, and she’s skilled at depicting Ginny as someone who’s almost constantly trying to maintain her poise amidst overwhelming pressure; she achieves a striking contrast in the few scenes where her character’s allowed to relax and be a normal person. At the same time, she sometimes comes off as a bit of a cipher. Part of the point of the show is that she’s had to sacrifice so many normal experiences in the course of becoming who she is, but at some point we’ll need to get a better sense of who she is under all those layers. I also like Lauria in his role as the grizzled old manager, as well as Ali Larter as Ginny’s tough and savvy agent, but Gosselaar is perhaps the biggest surprise. Known for roles in unchallenging fare such as Saved by the Bell and Franklin & Bash, Gosselaar achieves a kind of rugged gravitas. His Mike knows that the end is near and is increasingly unsure of what’s going to come next for him. At the same time, he’s feels a kind of paternal affection for Ginny, who’s so much younger that she had a poster of him in her childhood bedroom. It’s rare to see a friendship on TV between an older man and younger woman that doesn’t feel sexually charged or predatory, and hopefully Pitch can sustain this idea.

Regardless of whether they are preemptively canceled or run for years, both This Is Us and Pitch demonstrate the importance of developing compelling characters that can maintain interest in a long-running series. The prevalence of “spoiler culture,” in which fans of a show desperately try to avoid learning any new plot twist, suggests that narrative has become the be-all and end-all of our viewing experience. This comes at the expense of any coherent sense of who the people on our screen are, and how they relate to one another. Restoring some of that sense might help networks shows to stand out amid the bewildering proliferation of alternatives.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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