'This Is Us' Is Masterful. Two Characters Are Mediocre.

Convershaken Staff
March 17, 2017

This Is Us has earned universal acclaim and left millions of viewers in tears. But the NBC drama's success is largely down to three of the five main characters; the other two are dull, insipid and forgettable.

The show's first season - at least two more have been confirmed already - chronicles the lives of a couple and their three children, bouncing between different time periods to keep things interesting.

The parents, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), are engaging, fully fledged characters with lovable personalities and realistic flaws. Devastated by the loss of one of their triplets during childbirth, they adopt an abandoned baby after a wise doctor tells them: "Sometimes life is about taking the sourest lemons life has to offer and making something resembling lemonade."

Watching the pair navigate the challenges of raising and supporting three children, audiences experience everything from anxiety and discovery to laughter, elation and heartbreak. Their adopted son, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), completes the show's trio of excellence. He seeks out his biological father and introduces him to his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their two daughters, only to find out he's dying of cancer. Randall juggles the responsibilities of being a loving husband, doting father and reliable son while working long hours as a commodities trader at an investment bank. Eventually he becomes overwhelmed and suffers a breakdown, then has to deal with the death of his father within weeks of reuniting with him.

Randall's siblings are far less compelling. Kate (Chrissy Metz) is obsessed with her weight to the exclusion of almost everything else, ensuring her storylines are one-dimensional. Her boyfriend, Toby (Chris Sullivan), suffers from similar issues and is relentlessly unfunny.

Meanwhile, Kevin (Justin Hartley) is an aspiring actor so clichéd he may as well be Joey from Friends. Desperate to find meaning in his work and be taken seriously, he quits his low-brow TV show, moves to New York to star in a play, ends up sleeping with his co-star and the playwright, then reunites with the ex-wife he cheated on.

Kate and Kevin give viewers almost nothing to cheer, cry or laugh about. Their presence makes watching This Is Us an exercise in counting down the seconds until Jack, Kate or Randall are back on the screen. Perhaps the biggest problem is the relative lack of suspense or mystery in their lives: it's natural to care more about a dying grandfather and the impact on his new family; a couple battling to stay in love while raising three children; or Jack's unexplained death, which weighs on Kate and casts a pall over everything else. A handsome actor's search for meaning and an overweight woman's insecurities are no match.

This Is Us has stirred the hearts and stungthe tear ducts of millions - 12.8 million Americans tuned into the season finale. But its phenomenal success has come despite, not because of, its ensemble cast. Its second season would benefit from a shift in focus away from Kate's weight and Kevin's acting towards their family lives. Randall's trading, Kate's singing and Jack's architect gig are generally treated as backdrops to their family lives, only serving as sources of tension or dissatisfaction. 

The introduction of Kevin's wife is a promising sign. But Toby is more of a companion for Kate than a love interest or family member, and threatens to hold her back. In contrast, Randall's season-ending suggestion to Beth that they adopt a baby brought the show full circle and teased more heartwarming drama to come.

Kate and Kevin have prevented This Is Us from fulfilling its potential. If its writers can make viewers care about them as well, the show will truly be a masterpiece.