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‘This Is Us’ has forgotten what it is

‘This Is Us’ is an emotionally stirring family drama that, exasperatingly enough, can’t stop pretending to be a murder mystery

A still from ‘This Is Us’.
A still from ‘This Is Us’.

Then I first came across Dan Fogelman’s highly engaging and handkerchief-demanding drama This Is Us last year, I really took to it. As I wrote in my column then, I admired the fact that—at a time when most drama shows were based either on books or on big, fantastical, sometimes gimmicky premises—This Is Us chose to be the story of a family, which naturally means the several interlinked stories nested within. “Sometimes we don’t want long-dead survivors or estranged royals or time-travelling romantics. Sometimes we simply want a family," the column said, with me relieved to find such a well-performed and earnest bit of mush.

With season 2—new episodes out weekly on Hotstar and broadcast on Star World on Saturday nights at 9—it is becoming depressingly evident that the show is falling into the trappings it had so expertly evaded through the first season. The show is about a family of triplets who share a birthday with their father, a fact that was revealed rather elegantly in the series pilot. It cuts between present and past timelines to tell us the stories of the parents and the children (now adults) and their lives and loves. It is a show about how they are not today who they used to be, and yet about how much they are defined by their yesterdays. Executed deftly, the structure allowed the narrative to intrigue us even as the contents played out like comfort food.

There is one massive problem now, and it is with the family patriarch. Milo Ventimiglia—an uninteresting actor I have found annoying and obvious ever since he played Rocky’s son in Rocky Balboa—plays Jack, the dad to the triplets and devoted (alcoholic) husband. His performance is overwrought and hammy in an old-school way and would not have jarred so much if the actors around him were less stellar, but he is constantly outclassed by Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown, who play Rebecca Pearson and Randall Pearson, respectively. Incompetence is not the issue. Jack is dead. We know this right from the start, and as audiences we therefore treat the character with a certain posthumous affection because we know that at some point we’ll witness his death and shake our heads thinking how avoidable it was.

Infuriatingly enough, through the end of last season and now the beginning of this one, the show’s creators are trying to make “how Jack died" into the essential question driving the narrative. This is an irrelevant question because there is no malcontent on this show: Everyone is good, everyone means well, and while people may get on each other’s nerves once in a while, they are family—and everybody does indeed get up and sing. Yet we are teased with clues and make-believe cliffhangers, and I doubt anyone can be invested in this pretend-mystery. “Do you slip in the bathtub? Is it bad clams? Are you mauled by a circus lion in a convenience store?" Stephen Colbert asked Ventimiglia at the Emmy Awards earlier this year, referencing the saga nobody takes seriously. “I’m just saying, your fans want to see you dead."

I’ll take the clams. May we please kill the man and move on? This is the kind of show one enjoys with the wife, but TV dinners are made tedious with this obsession about a death nobody cares about. This is fuss.

A still from ‘Spielberg’.

The man who saw too much

If you love the movies, you love Steven Spielberg. That is plain fact, even if you claim not to like any of the marvellous movies he himself has made. The man continues to influence entire genres and styles and film-makers in an unprecedented fashion, and yet, I belatedly realize that I didn’t actually know as much as I thought I knew about the film-maker and what shaped him. Even though I’ve met him and told him how much Jurassic Park and that quivering glass of water meant to me.

A fine new HBO documentary called Spielberg—available in India on Hotstar—takes us deep into the heart and cinema of the director, from his early influences to the way Lawrence Of Arabia nearly scared him away from film-making. Compellingly directed by Susan Lucy, this authorized documentary about this gloriously nerdy man holds both inspiration and insight about one of the great creators of our time.

For so many of us, his films have provided great catharsis and greater escape. “I’ve avoided therapy," Spielberg says at one point, “because movies are my therapy." And his movies have been ours. Thank you, Steven.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

The writer tweets at @rajasen

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