When it comes to drama, NBC has a tendency to stick with what works. Case in point: A fourth entry in the network’s Chicago-themed franchise, "Chicago Law," arrives in midseason. So when the network announced at the upfront that it would debut a new fall drama from "Crazy, Stupid, Love" writer and producer Dan Fogelman called "This Is Us," many observers justifiably questioned whether an audience weaned on Dick Wolf storytelling would take to something so deeply relationship-oriented.
After all, it’s been ages since a family relationship drama has really resonated with viewers. Yes, ABC’s "Brothers and Sisters" was a moderate hit from 2006 to 2011, and "Parenthood" managed a five-year run on NBC from 2006 to 2011. There was also "Friday Night Lights" on NBC, which only managed to stay afloat beyond season two by co-producing seasons three through five with DirectTV. But none of the three were a true ratings success.
Yet four episodes in, "This Is Us" is not only my new personal addiction, but yours, too, if the ratings and buzz are to be believed. By the numbers, the show is the highest rated new network series among adults 18 to 49 (according to Nielsen) of the season. It also happens to be the first scripted series to ever build out of "The Voice" in the demo, and it is the first new NBC fall drama in one full decade to match its premiere week rating in week three.
Like "thirtysomething" before it, "This Is Us" inspires self-reflection through its dramatic (and sometimes heavy-handed) portrayals of complex family dynamics. These people, many of whom share the same birthday, are familiar to us, as are their methods—positive and otherwise—for coping with one another.
Sure, it’s early. But could the success of "This Is Us" be the first glimpse of audience exhaustion with crime-solvers and super heroes? Specifically, new ABC law dramas "Conviction" and "Notorious," both with strong lead-in support, barely have a pulse. Returnees like "Criminal Minds," "NCIS: New Orleans" and "Elementary" on CBS and "How to Get Away with Murder" on ABC have lost steam. And newbie "Timeless" on NBC, which mixes crime with time travel, is underperforming out of "The Voice" on Monday.
Not to overstate the virtues of "This Is Us." A good bit of the buzz surrounding the early episodes is fueled by hate watchers. The show can be obnoxiously gushy and melodramatic; the setups strain credibility; and already some of the plot twists and cliffhangers feel a little contrived.
But I’d argue that the time is ripe for a "thirtysomething"-style drama that we can all bitch and moan about, yet enjoy as a pure dramatic diversion. With no crime to be solved or no world to be saved, "This Is Us" allows us to focus on the characters and what makes them tick, improbable or otherwise. That also makes the show a particularly strong fit in the world of social media, which did not exist when "thirtysomething" aired. The multilayered characters and dense plot lines offer countless opportunities for digital debate.
Of course, a series this big this soon also runs the risk of burning out quickly, particularly given the penchant for the mini-cliffhangers at the end of each episode. So, I would suggest to the writers of "This Is Us" to trade some of the shock value for more character development. Save the cliffhanger for the season-ender so we can ponder it between seasons. And I would ask NBC to increase the number of episodes of "This Is Us" in season two. In today’s fickle viewing environment, more is definitely better.