This weekend is Super Bowl LII, one of the highest-rated yearly broadcasts for the small screen. It’s also NBC’s turn to host the Big Game, and reap the benefits of Television’s Biggest Lead-In Sports Program. Naturally, they picked the cream of their lineup, the only successful broadcast network series to be treated as prestige TV: “This Is Us.”
Having just passed the halfway point of its second season, “This Is Us” is riding high, with audience Live +3 ratings (people who watch the episode within three days of airing) hitting record levels. But landing a post- Super Bowl episode is bound to bring in a wave of new viewers. This is a huge opportunity to reel in an even bigger audience. But instead of focusing on new clues in the family drama's addictive puzzle-box mystery — a strategy that might hook new fans — the production is breaking the rules entirely and do something its cable brethren wouldn’t dare: It’s going to solve a major plot mystery halfway through the season.
Please be advised: minor spoilers for "This Is Us" follow.
It’s been 70 years since NBC — which, like NBC News, is owned by NBC Universal — created the first “networked” broadcast channels in 1947. Yet television is still fighting for respect from film-obsessed Hollywood. This may be why the last decade has seen the rise of the phrase “prestige TV,” a de facto class system that separates the best television from more pedestrian sitcoms, cop procedurals and, say, the Kardashians. Not surprisingly, small screen producers from venerable old timers to new-monied streamers all strive to have their shows given this prestige classification.
The unspoken parameters of prestige TV seem designed to keep broadcast networks out.
The unspoken parameters of prestige TV seem designed to keep broadcast networks out, however, implying that only pay cable and streaming networks are good enough. Partly this has to do with network standards: Some of the best examples of prestige TV now are written as if they will air unrated, filled with sex, drugs and violence. They are also sumptuous to look at, and highly expensive to produce. Most importantly, their seasons are typically far shorter than your now-standard broadcast season of 22 episodes, with most sticking to somewhere in the 8 to 13 episode range.
That hasn’t stopped the older networks from trying to get in the game, but most of their attempts fail. A few, like CBS’ “Star Trek: Discovery,” put shows behind streaming pay walls making them more like Netflix than their own network. A very few, like ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” course correct away from prestige hallmarks in the face of cancellation (in ABC's case, the extra-slow paced drama became action-packed in the last few episodes). Only NBC seems to have cracked the code. The network's past hits like "The West Wing," "ER," and "Hill Street Blues," were prestige before the label existed.
And yet, “This Is Us” does none of what a prestige TV show should do. Where prestige shows are violent, it is gentle. Where they are sexy, it is wholesome. But that’s also why it works. It marries what made family dramas of yesteryear great with what makes many a prestige TV show tick: the puzzle-box mystery. It does all this while bringing us some of the best acting and storytelling on television.
The premise is simple: a set of triplets Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and their adopted born-on-the-same-day brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown) all lost their father when they were teenagers. The death of their dad, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and the trauma of this unspoken subject drive the twins' emotional issues as well as their complicated relationship to their mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore.) How and why Jack died, the “emotional onion” of the show, has been the show's biggest mystery.
Since its premiere last year, “This Is Us” is the only broadcast network series to be given a seat at the Best TV Drama nominations table by the Emmys and the Golden Globes, alongside some of the most prominent examples of the prestige game like “Westworld”and “The Crown.” But it wasn’t until the SAG Awards this year that the show finally seemed to disprove the stereotype “prestige doesn’t happen on broadcast.” In a stacked field including such acclaimed shows as “Game of Thrones” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “This Is Us” took home top prize for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.
With this sort of high praise, NBC and the “This Is Us” writers would be forgiven for leaning too far into the suspense of the family drama. Among fans, it’s a mystery on par with “who were Jon Snow’s parents?” or “what exactly is going on in Westworld?" And just as with “Game of Thrones” or “Westworld,” there are entire subreddits dedicated to parsing the clues dropped every week.
And yet, instead of ratcheting up the mystery as its weekly ratings climb ever higher, “This Is Us” is doing something nearly unheard of so early in its run. It’s giving the audience answers. Contrast this with "Game of Thrones," which just told us who Jon Snow’s parents are, in the Season 7 finale. (Snow still doesn’t know though.)
“This Is Us” is doing something nearly unheard of so early in its run. It’s giving the audience answers.
This could be show suicide. After all, most puzzle-box shows collapse under the strain of giving everyone a conclusion they’ll be happy with. Conventional wisdom insists solving the mystery too early will kill a series, as it did for HBO’s “Carnivale” and Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove,” to name just a few. One of the most famous examples of the genre, "Twin Peaks," answered its own “who killed Laura Palmer” mystery at almost the exact same point in its second season back in 1990 — and found itself summarily canceled. It didn’t get a third season for 27 years.
But “This Is Us” has been fearless about divulging answers. The second season premiere revealed how Jack died. Last week’s flashbacks brought us right up to the fateful night in question and even disclosed how it started. (Another spoiler alert: It was the Crock-pot, in the kitchen, with the faulty warming switch.) And now, with four more episodes left in the season, the show runners say they are going to peel back the final layer of what happened to Jack, with no guarantee they’ll set up another one.
Fans could turn away, if it turns out that without this mystery, the series has nothing left to say. But “This Is Us” has also quietly been re-orienting itself, even as they unearth the truth. In the first season, the heart of the show lay in the flashbacks, with scenes in the present setting us up to see why the family's mysteries mattered. In the second season, the heart of the show has moved to the present, with episodes like the family therapy session pushing us to care more about these characters’ futures than their pasts.
“This Is Us” seems confident that it will be able to introduce as many mysteries and uncertainties as it solves, keeping audiences captivated by giving them something different: answers, catharsis and closure. In a world where everyone is chasing the next “Game of Thrones,” the hit that worked eight years ago, NBC is moving forward by looking back. It’s so crazy, it just might work.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.