Why This Is Us Is More Popular Than Friday Night Lights and Parenthood Ever Were

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Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore on This Is Us. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Spoilers ahead for the season-one finale of This Is Us.

NBC’s This Is Us is a television anomaly. An immediate hit when it debuted last September, it’s the kind of show that’s rarely a network standout these days: a relationship-driven family drama with nothing high-concept or unusual grafted onto its premise, other than frequent narrative twists.

Ahead of its season-one finale Tuesday night, a number of articles and essays tried to explain what has made This Is Us such a success. A Variety piece suggested, among other things, that its appeal lies in its great cast, those plot surprises, or the fact that the trailer — which amassed a ton of online views — prominently featured Milo Ventimiglia’s butt. (Never underestimate a great butt, America.) Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff posited that, like American Horror Story and Game of Thrones, This Is Us excels at moment-based storytelling in which individual scenes are tremendously satisfying, even if they fall apart when examined within the broader scope of the narrative. Both of these pieces — as well as a third by Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever — also noted that viewers may be especially hungry for this brand of TV comfort food given the harshness of what’s happening in the real world at the moment. “It’s a show that is pleasant and sad, but not too sad, not right now, no-thank-you,” wrote Stuever, adding that it’s “extraordinarily good at dispensing just the right dose of TV’s version of catharsis.” This sounds very right to me.

But why has This Is Us resonated so immediately with viewers, when other semi-recent NBC series with a similar warm, teary vibe — most notably Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, which were both better shows — never earned the same attention or ratings highs? I think it has something to do with the ethos of This Is Us, which is established in the pilot and reverberates throughout the season, especially in the finale.

During its initial 18-episode run, This Is Us has more or less adhered to the following principle: Some things are just meant to be. In one form or another, this is what many of us tell ourselves and each other when faced with adversity or a major loss: “Everything happens for a reason.” “It will all work out the way it’s supposed to.” “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” In other words, life’s events are part of a bigger, organized picture that makes some kind of sense, and even though things may be hard at times, it’s all going to be okay in the end. Even the basic narrative structure of This Is Us, which constantly pulls surprising pieces of information out of its sleeve, reinforces the sense that there is an architect behind the scenes who has everything under control.

This Is Us establishes this belief in fate in the very first episode. Via the big reveal in the pilot, we learn that Jack and Rebecca Pearson (Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) lost one of their three triplets in childbirth — a delivery performed by a doctor (Gerald McRaney) who once lost a child himself — and that they adopted a third baby who just happened to be brought to the hospital on the same day. We also realize that the three adults we meet during the same hour — Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — are those children, all grown-up. This family, the show tells us, was destined to be, and even bad things, like the loss of one child and the surrender of another, happen in service of a larger purpose.

Other moments unfold based on the same idea — particularly in the finale, in which we realize that Jack and Rebecca met after ditching blind dates with other people. She winds up singing at an open-mic night in the same bar where Jack has planned, but never acts on, a scheme to snatch cash out of the register. But as soon as he sees Rebecca, he’s too distracted to become the bad guy his father has always been. “You’re not just my great love story, Rebecca,” he tells her years later, in the 1990s, after a terrible argument that leads to their separation. “You were my big break.” Which is another way of saying: “You were my destiny.” Even when he tells Rebecca that the kids will be okay if they split up — “what happens to them, that’s bigger than us” — speaks to the existence of life’s master plan.

Other examples can be found elsewhere in season one. Kate has to go to Weight Watchers, but that puts her in the orbit of Toby (Chris Sullivan), a wonderful man who may, at some point in the not-distant future, grand-gesture her to death. Kevin quits his job as star of The Manny, but that decision pushes him to New York, as well as the opportunity to do more substantive work in theater and reconcile with his ex-wife. Randall finally finds William (Ron Cephas Jones), his birth father, but it turns out William has cancer. Which is bad. But the fact that Randall connects with him means that at least they get to forge some sort of relationship before William dies. (Everything happens for a reason!)

Even during the flashback in the midseason finale, “Last Christmas,” Rebecca tells young Kate that “nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve” to calm her when she comes down with appendicitis. But, uh, bad things do happen on Christmas Eve, and we know this during the flashback because Jack and Rebecca run into McRaney’s Dr. K, who is suffering from an illness. (Although, again, isn’t it fate that they happened to be at the same hospital at the same time, so they could comfort him?) We know it during the present-day storyline, too, because Toby collapses on Christmas Eve, overcome by a cliff-hanging heart attack … which turns out to be an arrhythmia, and forces him to realize he must marry Kate. (More things happening, plus reasons.)

In fairness, as the season has progressed, the show has allowed more cruelly random experiences to intrude. We learn that Kate has been plagued by feeling of guilt about her dad’s death for years. We watch Randall have an emotional breakdown and realize he’s suffered from stress since he was a child. William dies sooner than we may have expected, and even though Randall may be smiling because he got a chance to know him, he’s also crying, as is his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), because it’s over. All of that is legitimately sad and makes you tear up while watching. And yet, within the context of this comforting body pillow of a TV show, it’s also not super-painful to watch. You feel, at all times, like things will work out for the Pearsons — because within the This Is Us universe, there are no accidents, not really.

Contrast that with Friday Night Lights, whose first episode depicts a devastating injury to Dillon Panthers quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) that, unlike Toby’s heart attack, doesn’t turn out to be more minor than expected. Jason, the kid who seemingly has everything, is paralyzed. As we learn later, he will go on to lead a happy life. But he will never play football again or pursue the dreams he expected to pursue.

“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is very fragile,” says Coach Eric Taylor in a prayer that plays as a voice-over at the end of episode one. “We are vulnerable and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts: that what we have is special, and that it can be taken from us. And when it is taken from us, we will be tested.”

That’s the ethos of that show: Bad things are going to happen, not necessarily for any damn reason at all, and when they do, it will bring you to your knees. But you can and must persevere.

Throughout its run, Friday Night Lights certainly fed us plenty of warm comfort food, particularly in the form of another sometimes-challenged but always-very-much-in-love married couple, Eric and Tami Taylor. But what was most moving about that show was the way that its characters found ways to keep pushing forward and striving for goodness, despite the obstacles that kept landing in their paths. Everything didn’t always work out or happen for a reason. But what didn’t kill the people of Dillon, Texas, definitely made them stronger.

You could say that This Is Us has a bit of that in its bone structure, too; in that first episode, Dr. K tells Jack that by adopting baby Randall, he and Rebecca will have taken “the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.” The finale also establishes again that Jack is a man who has chosen to shun his darker tendencies and embrace light; other members of the Pearson family have also actively strived to be better people as well. But they have done so within an environment that’s swaddled in a gentleness that Friday Night Lights, with its less orchestrated sense of surprise and its documentary-style camerawork, usually avoided. Think of the season-four episode “The Son,” for example, in which Matt Saracen finds out his father died while serving in Iraq. It’s hard to imagine This Is Us ever getting as raw as that episode does. What made Friday Night Lights so superb is the same thing that may have made some viewers reluctant to tune in: From the very beginning, and throughout its five seasons, it shows us that shit happens and inflicts serious pain with no rhyme or reason.

Parenthood, also steered by Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims, is softer than Friday Night Lights and therefore rests more comfortably in the same episodic TV quadrant as a show like This Is Us. You can watch every episode and feel comfortable that, for the most part, everyone will be okay by the end of the hour. But like Friday Night Lights, Parenthood establishes from the beginning that life has a tendency to blindside, without compensating by offering advice from a doctor who knows exactly the right thing to say, or an abandoned baby that magically replaces a lost one.

Very early in the first season, Adam and Kristina Braverman learn that their son Max has Asperger’s. Obviously there are lots of other things going on in this show, but the journey that Adam, Kristina, Max, and his siblings embark on is, arguably, Parenthood’s most consistent and defining storyline — perhaps because Katims, who himself has a son with Asperger’s, so keenly understands the issues this raises. Max is challenging, and though the series eventually veers into some goofy directions while exploring those challenges — please don’t talk to me about the special-needs school Kristina opens in season six, unless you are ready to sit down for, like, hours — it is commendably honest and frank about the impact of his diagnosis on him and the members of his family. It’s one of the great things about Parenthood and, once again, one of the things that may have turned off some people.

When I used to recommend Parenthood to friends and acquaintances who weren’t watching it, they would often say they found the show “too sad.” But Parenthood was hardly a consistently sad show. It was often funny and sweet and as cathartic-cry-inducing as anything on This Is Us. But because it showed us a family getting life-altering news and adjusting to its significance over and over again, without offering some broader “this all makes sense” message, some may have decided it wasn’t quite escapist enough. Apparently, in order to appeal to a truly mass audience, a family drama must reflect our lives, but as a mirror whose glass is at least semi-rose-colored.

This Is Us does that, and in the finale it sticks to its core values, which tell us there are forces in the world bigger than we are, guiding us toward the people we are supposed to love and the places where we belong. There is such a thing as free will, but often fate will be there to catch us when we — or, specifically, Jack — are tempted to make the wrong choice. Life is hard, This Is Us tells us, but it also comes with a built-in safety net. That may not be true about actual life. But the popularity of this show is a testament to how deeply and desperately we all want to believe that.

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