Calling your show This is Us is a bold move. It implies a certain universality of the human experience, which in an age of identity politics is hard enough in a single city of the US, without TV producers having to think about how much of the New York City cultural experience transfers to South Africa, for example.
Yet that's what This is Us is going for. You probably have to look back to Parenthood and before that thirtysomething to find shows that were so convinced of their universal applicability and smartness.
This is Us - or perhaps that should be This is US, given it's American focus - tries to demonstrate its pancosmic thesis through the conceit of three storylines, each involving one or more people who all have the same birthday: a married couple (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) who are about to have triplets; an actor brother and a love-lorn sister (Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz); and a rich trader (Sterling K Brown) whose drug-addict father (Ron Cephas Kones) abandoned him as a baby after his mother died.
A title card preceding the drama says that according to Wikipedia, people who share the same birthday aren't guaranteed to have anything else in common. But how much do you want to bet that it's hinting at a "universality of the human spirit", that universality being love, predominantly for family, predominantly in an American way? And that on top of that, that there's a secret link between the three storylines that will become immediately obvious by about two-thirds of the way through? One that involves a bit of cheating involving Milo Ventimiglia's physique?
They say 'write what you know', but if everyone in TV does that, we're going to be in a sorry state very soon. I've already lost track of the current number of shows airing, just having aired or that are in development that are based on the lives of one of the executive producers. There's even a Judge Judy drama on the way. Do we really need that? I don't think so.
I guess the idea is that it not only gives an air of verisimilitude to the show, as well as a built-in audience and ideas for stories that might otherwise never have occurred to the writers, it also insulates the writers from accusations of racism, implausibility and so on - "But that's what actually happened!" they can say.
Trouble is that with a lot of these shows, either people's lives are already remarkably similar to TV shows or somewhere in development, people's life stories get squeezed into formats that allow the shows to run for 10, 13 or 24 episode seasons, hopefully up to a syndicatable 5-7 seasons or more. The result is they all still end up looking the same as one another and what you see is probably not what actually happened?
Take Bull, CBS's new show, which is based on the life of Dr Phil McGraw. You know Dr Phil, right? Well, before being a stalwart of Oprah and then getting his own show, he was a 'trial scientist'. Here he is explaining what that is to Bull star Michael Weatherly.
I say 'based', but the show's creators say 'inspired'. That suggests that it bares very little resemblance to watch Dr Phil's life used to be like. Yep, development squeezed the real life out of it while it was shoving the story into a CBS procedural formatting box.
Nevertheless, there might be something true about it. I mean if you think Dr Phil is just a trite regurgitator of homely platitudes with little scientific basis that are designed to further his TV career rather than actually truly help people, which would be impossible anyway, Bull will just confirm your suspicions as it's just a trite regurgitator of homely platitudes with little scientific basis that are designed to further a very standard legal procedural.
All the same, real or not, seen Justice? Seen Shark? Seen Lie To Me? Then you'll have seen a whole bunch of very similar shows that were all better than Bull. There's the standard older, slightly troubled central eponymous white guy who everyone thinks is brilliant and spends most of their time admiring. There's the diverse team of slightly less brilliant, slightly more personality-free helper monkeys who are going to get significantly less time for character development over the course of the series. There's the endless stream of supposed pieces of wisdom that are actually just blunt over-simplifications. There's the never-ending series of false trails before the eventual resolution. There's blunt talking at anyone who's not 'with the programme'.
About the only thing different is the inclusion of a slightly punky computer girl (Annabelle Attanasio), which is more of a head nod to the NCIS audience Weatherly is hopefully taking with him.
If this is an advert for 'trial science', it's also a big epic failure. While it may (or may not) be an accurate representation of what goes on behind the scenes with 'mirrored juries' (seen them in Justice and Shark - soz) et al, trying to pass off "she's thinking of him as being like her son" as profound is a surefire loser. If people are paying big money for this, I've got this great wire transfer scheme they might want to hear about.
Bull's not without the occasional innovation: I quite liked the way the various members of the jury Weatherly was analysing from afar seemingly spoke their inner desires to him and his 'too long, didn't read' was a nice rejoinder to something from a millennial.
But those moments are fleeting. Unless you like watching TV shows that are just like all those other TV shows that you like - well, it is CBS - give Bull a wide berth.
CBS sitcoms almost perfectly divide into two camps: the first are executive produced by Chuck Lorre (eg Mom, Two And a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory) and are surprisingly diverse in terms of ideas, if not their general hatred of all that is good and pure in the world. The second, by contrast, normally revolve around overweight blue collar men married to much more attractive, younger women and who have trouble adapting to modern life as they'd much rather be spending their time sitting around with their mates, knocking back beers. Such men are usually Kevin James (eg King of Queens).
Kevin Can Wait falls squarely into camp two, with Kevin James - for it is he - playing a just-retired cop married to Erinn Hayes (Childrens Hospital, The Winner, Worst Week, Guys With Kids) and having to deal with greater intimacy as he hangs around the home with his two younger school-age kids. Then his high-achieving eldest daughter (Taylor Spreitler) announces she's dropping out of school to support her nerdy British boyfriend Ryan Cartwright (Alphas) while he develops his app, prompting all manner of soul-searching by James.
I was expecting the worst of this and to be fair, you can probably guess pretty much all the tragic attempts at comedy in the first half of the episode. But things marginally improve once Spreitler shows up with Cartwright in tow. It's also worth noting that Hayes can do this kind of sitcom standing on her head, and that although James may be best known these days for being besies with Adam Sandler and starring in near-horror movies such as Here Comes The Boom, he's also a decent enough actor and an appealing presence in this kind of multi-camera comedy. Despite co-creating a character who wants to spend all day playing around in go-karts and drinking beers with his buds, his creation is a warm-hearted guy, willing to let his daughter and her fiancé move back in with him, if it'll stop her dropping out of school and potentially ruining her future.
That said, despite the cast's best efforts, there's only a smattering of gags that ever manage to hit home ("That's every stripper's backstory!") and viewing is frequently only bearable at times on fast foward. I doubt I could summon up the strength to view another episode, to be honest. But having watched this first episode, it does at least make me think twice before totally writing off anything James is in in future.
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A UK media blog focusing on the best scripted TV from around the world, with daily news, views, exclusive reviews and good conversation. There's a bit of a bias towards the latest and greatest US TV, but we also cover Scandinavian, Canadian, European and Antipodean TV, as well as UK TV ranging from new Doctor Who to old Z Cars, and BBC4 to S4C.
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"For most of us watching the telly of an evening is a way to wind down and relax, but for Rob Buckley it’s his blogging bread and butter. With reviews of cult classics and up and coming US and Brit television shows, The Medium is Not Enough is fast becoming essential reading for TV buffs, with over 50,000 hits a month."
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.