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.
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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.)