A couple of Dan Fogelman's achievements as a Hollywood screenwriter: he turned Ryan Gosling into a sympathetic Pick Up Artist in Crazy Stupid Love, and he successfully anthropomorphised a bunch of cars in the Pixar animation Cars.
Now, as the creator of TV2's new series This Is Us, he has pulled off an even more unlikely feat by turning a warm, earnest dramedy about a group of likeable thirty-somethings into one of the most eagerly anticipated shows in US fall television schedule.
By the time it debuted on NBC last week the show had generated an unusual amount of hype - unusual mostly because unlike most other big shows these days there is no discernable hook, no big concept. The 'Plot' section of its Wikipedia entry is just one sentence long: "The series tells the story of people born on the same day."
The first episode introduces these four main characters, all of whom are celebrating their 36th birthday, and all of whom find their lives in some state up upheaval.
There's Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), who spends his birthday in hospital after his wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) goes into labour with triplets. Kate (Chrissy Metz) finally vows to start attending a weight loss support group. Her brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), the star of an idiotic studio sitcom called 'The Manny', is in the throes of an existential crisis. Corporate high-flyer Randall (Sterling K. Brown) tracks down and confronts his biological father.
Their seemingly disparate storylines are interwoven over the course of the episode, which manages to cover a lot of ground without ever feeling hurried or drowning in exposition. Jack and Rebecca's storyline is the most immediately engaging and emotional - their reassuring pep talk from a kindly old doctor at the hospital sets the tone early for what looks like being the show's trademark brand of heartstring-tugging sentimentality.
The show lays it on pretty thick at various points of the episode, but the writing always shows just enough self-awareness and restraint to consistently land at that sweet spot just before outright cheesiness. In the other big tearjerker Randall shows up to the home of the man who 36 years ago abandoned him on the front steps of a fire station. He gives him an angry, impassioned piece of his mind, but just as he is about to turn and walk back to his car the old man asks: "You wanna come in?" And just like that, we're sucked into another character's life.
These emotionally charged scenes are mercifully balanced out by some more light hearted moments. 'The Manny' is an almost believable satire of an absurdly popular studio comedy in which a shirtless hunk takes care of a baby, and Kevin's Network-esque on-set existential breakdown is, more than anything else, darkly funny.
Kate, meanwhile, fulfils the show's romance quotient, going on a date with an oafish but charming gent called Toby after exchanging furtive glances across the room at their weight loss support group. Chrissy Metz instills a disarming amount of humanity in her character, putting in what is probably the standout performance of the pilot episode.
At a brisk 42 minutes This Is Us almost feels more like a self-contained miniature movie, complete with a big cinematic twist (you should probably avoid googling anything to do with the show before watching). It provides an immensely satisfying climax, but begs the question: where do we go from here?
It's a story about people born on the same day - and thanks to smart writing and an excellent cast it more than lives up to the hype. On the strength of the pilot, most viewers should be sticking with it for at least a few more episodes to see how it all plays out.