Return of the fireplace-worthy family drama
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What you deserve to watch:
They don’t make family dramas like they used to.
Stories of relationships and love and interpersonal complexity are—in this age of high-concept television—often built around an immediate storytelling premise. A family fighting armies in the north, say, or a family introduced to us via hyperactive soap operatic narration, or an affair told to us via multiple perspectives, or a cop daughter trying to make her cop father proud in a snowy town rife with murderers… and so forth. The shows alluded to above may well be sensational, but their admirably committed reliance on the overarching set-up keeps them from being universally relatable. Sometimes we don’t want long-dead survivors or estranged royals or time-travelling romantics. Sometimes we simply want a family.
This Is Us—a series about brothers and sisters and parents and problems, streaming in India on Hotstar—gives us that very thing. There is a young and frequently objectified actor and his obese sister, there is a black commodity trader trying to locate his biological father, and there’s a young couple on the verge of having triplets. The conceptual gimmick for this show is that several of the aforementioned folk share a birthday, and—since this isn’t a show about the astral importance of birthdays or metaphysical malarkey about interconnectedness—this idea sets the narrative in motion but, thankfully, never limits the storytelling.
Created by Dan Fogelman— who wrote Crazy, Stupid, Love, Pixar’s Cars and also made the criminally underrated TV musical Galavant—This Is Us gives us refreshingly fully formed characters with believable conflicts. It is a dramatic show, fraught with emotion, but the escalating conflicts rarely feel unearned and there is a soothing amount of common sense on display when it comes to character behaviour. The writing is strong—sometimes surprisingly so—and while I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, let’s just say it’s a cleverer show than you might expect.
Its cast includes the increasingly infallible Sterling K. Brown, who was so stellar in American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson, and who gives this show both gravitas and unpredictability as he creates a character it is hard not to cheer. Justin Hartley as a former sitcom star and Chrissy Metz as his sister struggling with the very notion of control are mighty fine as well. While Milo Ventimiglia, playing a plaid-wearing husband, always appears a bit too on the nose as an actor, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I like Mandy Moore as his vulnerable, washing-machine-fetishizing wife.
The series has been nominated for three Golden Globes—Best Drama, plus Best Supporting Actress nods for both Metz and Moore—and it isn’t hard to see why it is such a hit across international audiences. There is something fundamentally satisfying—and, in comparison to the macabre television landscape, genuinely uplifting—about watching families made up of likeable and reasonably intelligent characters struggling with problems we have faced or witnessed. This Is Us is far from groundbreaking television, but it will send you to bed with a smile. And that may matter more than we would like to admit.
What life’s too short to watch:
Netflix shunned its hyperactive publicity machine and slyly snuck its latest series on to our screen last Friday, hoping a show we knew nothing about would immediately blow our minds. Either that or they thought they shouldn’t draw too much attention to a weird show unlikely to find many takers. After a first view, the latter appears more likely, and The OA is, tragically enough, not one of those wildly esoteric shows that may prove too clever or too weird for most people.
It is instead straddled with the unlikely combination of being both too daft and too dull, a show that is impressively weird but also unbelievably stupid.
The OA tells us the story of a missing girl called Prairie (played by Brit Marling, who created the show with the very coolly named Zal Batmanglij) who has come back to her family and, once blind, can now see. She has clearly been through some sort of awakening and calls herself “The OA” and begins to put together a squad of people, working towards some grand purpose. This idea of Prairie (finding her home companions, if I may) is intriguingly comic book-y, but the show unspools at an abysmal pace and the overall pretentiousness is painful.
This is a show so convinced of its own coolth that it doesn’t feel the need to try too hard, and while the production is indeed sometimes pretty cool, it takes more than cinematic flair to dazzle the binge-watcher of today. If you remain curious about The OA after hearing the premise, I suggest you watch the preposterous final episode and make a drinking game of it. Netflix may categorize this show as “mind-bending” but they seem to be grading on a curve, and you would be better off watching Black Mirror all over again. Or you might prefer your mind unbent.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.