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'This Is Us' season three vs. 'Life Itself:' Dan Fogelman's new film fizzles despite his loyal TV audience

Fogelman's melodramatic movie seems designed to appeal to the "This Is Us" fan base, but the plot doesn't deliver.
Image: 'Life Itself' Film - 2018
Olivia Wilde stars as Abby in new film "Life Itself."Jon Pack / Jon Pack/FilmNation/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

NBC hit “This Is Us” debuts its third season on Tuesday with a supposed twist so big the network has withheld screeners from most critics. The show is one of the most successful broadcast series in a decade where most hits seem to be concentrated on cable or streaming services.

Perhaps looking to capitalize on its success, “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman debuted his second major motion picture this past weekend. Entitled “Life Itself,” the film was heavily promoted during the second season of “This Is Us” and is obviously designed to appeal to the same fan base of catharsis-cry lovers. But Fogelman’s one-two punch mostly fizzles, as “Life Itself” is so overstuffed it's hard to know what audience might actually appreciate it.

(Spoilers below.)

Fogelman’s one-two punch mostly fizzles, as “Life Itself” is so overstuffed it's hard to know what audience might actually appreciate it.

Television has been a medium in search of respect for decades. Created as a mass market entertainment system, TV wants but has never really received a level of respect comparable to the film industry. So when prestige TV came along, the instinct was to compare these newly expensive, layered shows to movies, as if this somehow was the ultimate compliment. The results have been shows like “Fargo,” where the showrunners boast their programs are really “ten-hour movies.”

But the idea that the two mediums are interchangeable is a bad one. Some ideas that work as TV shows only work in that format. Enter “Life Itself,” a movie which contains an idea that could have been a great pilot for a new series on NBC (with a whole lot of editing). In movie form, however, it is a confused and frustrating puzzle that leaves audiences wondering why they sat through it.

In a special NBC aired hyping the premiere of “This Is Us” season three, Fogelman admitted that his hit show was originally written as a movie. The plot focused on six or eight main characters spanning multiple generations over the last century. At the end of the film, it would turn out that all of characters were part of the same family.

Lucky for “This Is Us” fans, he reconsidered this plan. The series that eventually aired on NBC involves fewer characters and only two generations. At the end of the pilot, it is revealed that all the characters belong to only one family — a big twist that sets up the rest of the season, which slowly paints a compelling and rich portrait of generational family drama. By using TV’s long-game format, Fogelman gives the story breathing room as well as multiple curtains to draw back as mysteries resolve.

“Life Itself,” in contrast, feels like what “This Is Us” could have been in Fogelman's original format. The result is a contrived, tone-deaf, misogynistic and violently bizarre work that whiplashes between being a Tarantino wannabe and a quiet indie, with an ending that only works if there was another installment coming next Tuesday.

Take the different ways the series and the film handle race. “This Is Us” boasts about its diverse writer’s room, which helps ensure that no one has to act as the single spokesperson for their gender or race. This commitment pays off — the show has been praised for its depiction, for instance, of Randall and Beth Pearson, an affluent African-American couple who nevertheless feel a strong sense of class anxiety.

“Life Itself,” on the other hand, smacks of something written by a privileged white male who knows little of what he speaks. One half of the movie spends a great deal of time in Spain, with characters who literally describe themselves as being “simple people” who must “work by hand,” as if this makes them noble. Olivia Wilde’s character, Abby, has a grotesque laundry list of horrors including (but not limited to) sexual molestation, gun violence and abuse — none of which seems reflected in the dialogue or plot. Instead yet, her trauma is used to put her on a pedestal, as though pain is somehow inherently purifying.

These problems are separate from the film’s bizarre violence, which includes a decapitation and brutal bus accident. Why would a movie marketed to the same audience as “This Is Us” think these spasms of brutality would be an appealing idea?

“Life Itself” smacks of something written by a privileged white male who knows little of what he speaks.

Critics and fans do complain that the late father Jack (played by Milo Ventimiglia) is also stuck up on a pedestal in “This Is Us,” his memory also purified by pain. Indeed, the season three premiere spends a good amount of time focused on the direct aftermath of his death, scenes juxtaposed with misty watercolor memories of Jack and Rebecca’s first date back in the 1970s. But because Jack’s story is not told in a single movie, there’s room for more nuance. The audience doesn't come away thinking that Jack was a perfect man, even if his family no longer remembers some of his flaws. Also unlike the way Abby is portrayed, his death never feels like a plot device written so that other characters around her could improve.

In the Paley Center special, Fogelman notes that the reason he felt “This Is Us” might work better as a TV series was that it didn’t need a defined beginning, middle and end. Instead he could introduce the characters with a semi-beginning, and then continue to unveil new details slowly as the show progressed from season to season. “Life Itself” would have benefited from the same room to run.

Instead, the surprise conclusion bringing all the characters together is not an ending. Rather, it feels like the beginning, with the past several hours acting as mere prologue for the real story — which of course will never come. (Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, it seems unlikely that there will be a sequel.) But not to worry. “This Is Us” will return next Tuesday, bringing with it all the emotional twists and turns (and crying) we’ve come to crave.