The hit NBC weekly soap opera This Is Us is certainly not easy to follow. If you haven't been watching for sometime, I don't think you can tune in now and have any idea what the heck is going on.
It is hard enough if you have been watching from day one, as I have. Because the storyline jumps backward and forward in time, and the actors change in most cases to fit the age differences, newcomers to the show are going to be baffled.
The family oriented theme revolves around a fairly large ensemble of people and their individual and collective storylines. The show is rich in plot, deep in character development and performed by extremely talented actors.
I love this form of drama. I think the writing is tight and the dialogue real. Personally, this is my favorite kind of weekly show, but I wonder why it has attracted such a wide audience simply because none of the other networks offer anything like it. Most highly rated shows reflect a predilection for fanciful escapism or formulaic cop shows. Reality shows attract massive audiences because everyone wants to see a train wreck.
There have been some great ensemble dramas in the past. Lost, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, The West Wing, and Thirtysomething come to mind, but This Is Us is quite different. It is all about family, whereas the other shows explored relationships that were forced by odd circumstance or unusual employment. And there is no contrivance other than the unusual circumstances of how the family came together and grew and reacted to each other and the changes in relationships as they age.
So what is the hook that makes This Is Us work so well?
There are constant elements to the success and appeal of any TV program: Writing is paramount, but that is obvious. So I would suggest that pacing is a key device to keep an audience glued to the screen. Every great TV drama mixes strong emotions into the story, blending humor and heartbreak, expectation and disappointment equally, so the viewer can't wait to see what is coming next week. This Is Us moves along at a rapid, sometimes disturbing pace because of the storylines that bridge the lifetimes of the people. In just one episode we may see a character in childhood, in adolescence and in middle-age. And that is just one theme. When intermingled with half a dozen dramatic and unexpected plot twists, the combination is compelling.
Finally, I think viewers can relate to how fast life seems to go by, and how little control we actually have on where it will eventually take all of us.