There’s a distinctly American brand of understated family drama that never quite makes it seamlessly across the Atlantic – some of the finest series, like Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood have ended up cult favourites in the UK but undiscovered en masse until years later, given new life by syndication and streaming services.
In its chronicling of the lives of one ‘average’ (or not so average, as is usually proven) American family, This Is Us, which begins at 9pm on Channel 4, is of similar ilk. Heavy on the sentiment but with performances compelling enough to prevent the saccharine scenes from cloying too much, tonight’s opening episode of the drama introduces us to four people on their 36th birthday. There’s a disillusioned actor and his overweight twin sister, a soon-to-be father, and a successful businessman – each of them ostensibly on the brink of some pivotal life change or redefining, enlightening moment and, as the episode unfolds, we begin to observe how closely their lives intertwine.
This Is Us makes use of multiple narratives to impressive effect – sometimes offering a slow-drip reveal of a character’s backstory or inner neuroses, other times delivering tricksy, twisty cliffhangers that will wallop you over the head with their implausibility. Not that you’ll care about a lack of realism – by that point, you’ll have been drawn in by the impressive cast, including Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, and characters that while none of them desperately endearing or sympathetic, bare their flaws so close to the surface that they become unfailingly intriguing.
It takes itself a smidge too seriously, and there’s no doubt it encourages us all to think about the TRUE meaning of the word ‘family’. Which, if you’re a cynical, frosty Brit more used to modern, grittier drama – from our own Sally Wainwright, or Scandi noir – might become unbearable. But there is an irresistible warmth to This Is Us, easy to watch, accessible, cleverly written and with occasionally searing depth.