Saturday, November 4, 2017

Running On: This Is Us and the Demands of Network Drama

When I wrote about This Is Us last year, I noted that the NBC drama, along with creator Dan Fogelman’s now-defunct Fox baseball show Pitch, represented a more adventurous approach to storytelling, at least for traditionally risk-averse network television. To a large degree, that’s just the nature of the medium; it’s hard to achieve the sort of narrative freshness and surprise that the most popular cable shows rely upon, because a network show’s season is almost always considerably longer. The typical network drama produces over 20 episodes, as opposed to approximately 13 for a cable drama like FX’s The Americans. At their best, shows like The Good Wife or Buffy the Vampire Slayer have made a virtue of necessity, employing a case-of-the-week format that allowed them to create compelling self-contained episodes, such as Buffy’s “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling,” or entries in the series that unexpectedly become launching points for major arcs, such as Good Wife‘s “Red Team/Blue Team,” which kick-started one of that show’s creative high points.

By contrast, the first season of This Is Us felt different, in large part because it used its eighteen-episode run as an opportunity to delve into the backstories and motivations of its characters in a way that felt unusually careful and well thought-out. Unexpected revelations about a character’s past and personality often signal stagnation in a writers’ room, serving as a gambit to rekindle viewers’ interest in the show, even if those revelations make little or no sense for how we’ve perceived the character up to that point. There’s an unabashedly melodramatic streak to This Is Us, which is both understandable and unavoidable, given that it centers around the lives of three triplets, two of whom lost their third biological sibling in the delivery room and the other of whom, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), is an African-American who was born on the same day but adopted after his father abandoned him at a fire station. The first season handled twists such as the revelation of how Randall came to join his family with aplomb, garnering the show a reputation for being able to make its audience cry at will without coming off as overly sentimental or corny.

However, it’s in the nature of a network drama that the story must go on (and on and on), and the second season of This Is Us is beginning to show the strain of the constant need for more plot, more surprising reveals to keep its audience guessing. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the show’s most-anticipated secret: the way in which the triplets’ father, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), died. The problem is that Fogelman and his creative team have built up this plot point so much, and for so long, that it’s lost some of its potential impact, because it’s clear they’re trying to achieve shock value in finally telling us what happened to Jack, rather than the deep emotional resonance that the first season’s best reveals brought. It also suggests a certain lack of trust in Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley, who play Kate and Kevin, the two biological siblings of the Pearson triplets. Metz, in particular, felt stuck in endless and ultimately pointless plotlines about Kate’s attempts to deal with her weight during the first season, and at least this year the writers are trying to find a new note for her, albeit by giving her an unexpected pregnancy. As for Hartley, he’s always been better at showing Kevin’s lingering resentment of the more accomplished Randall than at making his character’s self-involvement an especially complex or interesting trait. Now Fogelman and company are saddling him with an addiction storyline that, like some of the other developments this season, makes a certain amount of sense for the character but still feels like an attempt at generating additional dramatic tension simply for the sake of providing fodder for water-cooler discussion among the show’s viewers.

Lyric Ross as Dèjà on This is Us

In that regard, it’s telling that a similar plot involving Randall and his wife Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) decision to foster a troubled young woman named Dèjà (Lyric Ross) works much better because of the actors involved. Brown has deserved all of the accolades that he’s received for his work on This Is Us, and it’s clear that Fogelman and the other writers have long since realized that he’s the star of the show. What’s impressive is that Brown has found a way to use the new developments in Randall’s life to expand upon his characterization in a way that feels organic to the character. The first season established that Randall’s both brilliant and high-strung, capable of achieving great things but unable to tolerate failure in himself and liable to severe nervous breakdowns at times of exceptional stress. Brown’s particularly capable of showing us Randall’s fear of failure, as he tries to make an emotional connection with the uncommunicative Dèjà, who tends to flinch at the first hint of a man approaching her.

While Brown gets most of the attention for his performance, Watson’s Beth is the sorely underappreciated complement to his star turn. In a show whose tendency to give characters emotional monologues underscored by sentimental music has become more noticeable in its sophomore year, her ability to show the rapport between Beth and Randall makes their scenes together some of the most interesting in terms of letting us simply watch two people relate to one another. The role of wife to one of the show’s main characters could have been a thankless and largely colorless one, and the writers saddle her with some of the season’s more tortuous logic in the scene where she convinces Randall to foster an older child instead of adopting a baby, but Watson’s able to distract us from the shakier aspects of the writing with a consistently strong and grounded performance.

D’arcy Carden as Janet in The Good Place (photo Justin Lubin/NBC)

In watching This Is Us, I sometimes can’t help but find myself thinking of Empire, another network drama with a delightful, if uneven, first season and a marked falling-off in quality thereafter. However, where Empire revels in its over-the-top plot twists and unrestrained soap-opera quality, This Is Us works best when it feels honest and (relatively) restrained. I can’t help thinking that there’s just an inherent tendency for networks’ longer seasons and their perception that they need to keep their audience engaged on the superficial level of providing plot twists and big reveals to eventually dilute the qualities that made it so appealing in the first place. It’s been striking to track its development next to another NBC show in its second season, Michael Schur’s comedy The Good Place. Network comedy generally thrives on a sort of stasis, in which audiences watch in order to see how characters who generally remain the same over the course of a show react to unique situations (hence the term “sitcom”) from week to week. In a way, it feels like parts of This Is Us are doing the same thing this season, giving us new twists that aren’t as effective in challenging our understanding of who its characters are as they were in the first season. By contrast, The Good Place has practically reinvented itself every week, finding plausible but unexpected ways to deepen and develop even characters like Janet, the seemingly emotionless, inhuman information system who serves as a sort of reference and personal assistant for the inhabitants of the afterlife. In the process, actors like D’arcy Carden, who plays Janet, are able to find new sides of their characters, instead of simply repeating the gags that initially made them funny and engaging. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Schur is working with a shorter season than is typical for a network comedy, which allows him to dispense with filler and keep both story and character development moving forward in exciting new ways every week.

Ultimately, it seems that there may be a limit to what we can expect from a drama that’s expected to produce enough content to fill out an entire network television season. Just don’t tell that to the cast and crew of This Is Us, which NBC has already renewed for a third season.

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

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