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Fall TV's hottest pilot hits 4 out of 5 of its marks. Will 'This Is Us' fill the 'Parenthood' gap?

Fall TV's hottest pilot hits 4 out of 5 of its marks. Will 'This Is Us' fill the 'Parenthood' gap?
Kevin (Justin Hartley) has a 36th birthday crisis in "This Is Us." (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Now that the Emmys are over, we enter television's official fall season, that magical time of year when we immerse ourselves for weeks at a time in the art form known as the pilot.

Pilots are tough. In a single episode, the creators must create a world, introduce characters, explain backstories, set the tone and give some hint of what the show will be about.

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In four out of five of these tasks, NBC's new drama "This Is Us" is one of the best pilots of the fall. (It is certainly among the hottest — its trailer, released in May, broke all sorts of records on social media).

When I tell you that Gerald McRaney, who plays the obstetrician, deserves an Emmy, like right now, I mean what I say.


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An obvious but still greatly appreciated attempt to fill the gaping hole left by "Parenthood," "This Is Us" opens with the Wikipedia-sourced fact that on average, 18 million living people share the same birthday. This is followed by the observation that there is "no evidence that sharing the same birthday creates any type of behavioral link between those people."

Which the opening scenes then set out to disprove.

In quick succession, we meet Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), Kate (Chrissy Metz), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) as they celebrate and/or face down their 36th birthdays.

Each introductory scene is a vivid and admirably telling glance of who these people are in this moment of their lives. Jack and his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), make a loving and humorous attempt to continue an intimate birthday tradition despite Rebecca's belly, which is wildly extended with triplets. Elsewhere, Kate resists the cake brought by a friend and attempts to finally face her weight issues; Randall endures his staff's attempt to mark the day while preoccupied with personal business; and Kevin, the hunky star of a TV show called "The Manny," has an existential meltdown even as two women attempt to seduce him.

The first hour of "This Is Us" follows each of these stories through a series of next steps — Rebecca goes into labor; Kate joins a weight-loss support group; Randall, having finally located his birth father, confronts him; and Kevin turns his midlife moment into a full-blown career crisis — before twisting up another kind of response to the initial supposition about shared birthdays.

It's a lovely and lyrical premiere, studded with everyday detail, from the realities of soccer parents to the long-term effects of the Challenger disaster. If creator Dan Fogelman ("Crazy Stupid Love") seems addicted to turning-point sentiment, the performances and the pacing keep each story  from getting stuck in the stickiness.

Ventimiglia and Moore make Jack and Rebecca love-struck but real; Metz makes Kate no more or less self-injurious than any person who has let things slide for too long; Brown's Randall is a marvelous study in barely balanced forces; and Hartley, like his character, delivers a deceptively subtle performance.

Oh, and when I tell you that Gerald McRaney, who plays the obstetrician, deserves an Emmy, like right now, I mean what I say.

But this pilot, not content with emotional thrall, takes a huge chance by having the hour lead up to a big reveal. Well, a sort of big reveal — it's not like (spoiler alert!) the camera pulls back to show enormous aliens watching these amusing humans through a magnifying glass. Still, the hour provides its own resolution, and while bonus points should always be awarded to those taking chances, this makes it a bit difficult to judge what the actual show will be like.

Still, the success of most every series rests on the appeal of its characters, and "This Is Us" appears to be full of appealing characters. And if the precision and creativity of the pilot are an indication, Fogelman knows just what to do with them.

'This Is Us'

Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

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Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)

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