‘This Is Us’ has earned its place among TV’s best family dramas. Here’s how

A mother and father crouch by a sofa on which their three young children are sitting.
Milo Ventimiglia, from left, Kaz Womack, Isabella Rose Landau, Ca’Ron Jaden Coleman and Mandy Moore in “This Is Us.”
(Ron Batzdorff / NBC)

This is the Los Angeles Times newsletter about all things TV and streaming movies. This week, we herald the unheralded “This Is Us,” catch up with “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness, and explore “The Legend of Vox Machina.” Scroll down!

Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who won’t soon forget the only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H.

That’s because the question — what is Bangladesh? — tripped up fan-favorite “Jeopardy!” champ Amy Schneider, whose winning streak, the second-longest in the game show’s history, came to an end Wednesday. (The software engineering manager from Oakland says her rival, Chicago librarian Rhone Talsma, is a good dude, so not to worry. “Jeopardy!” is in fine hands.)


While the internet mourned the end of Schneider’s 40-win run, which made her the winningest woman and transgender contestant in “Jeopardy!” history and netted her a whopping $1,382,800, it’s not impossible she’ll be back. As she told The Times earlier this month, she wouldn’t look askance at a chance to stand behind the host’s podium:

“It would certainly be a cool experience,” she said. “It’s a lot harder than it looks. Whether I’d actually even be good at it, I don’t know. ... But yeah, I‘d certainly consider it if somebody asked.”

Until then, happy trails, Amy. And congrats on a game-changing run.


Must-read stories you might have missed

A panel of six photographs of Bill Cosby in a pink sweater making different faces
Bill Cosby in W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries “We Need to Talk About Cosby.”
(Mario Casilli / mptvimages / Courtesy of Showtime)

A new Bill Cosby docuseries nearly drove its director to quit. The struggle paid off: W. Kamau Bell’s “We Need to Talk About Cosby” is a compelling, complicated wrestling match with the legacy of the cultural icon and alleged rapist.


Why pay TV operators are dropping Trump-loving cable networks: DirecTV’s decision to drop OAN and Newsmax’s loss of several smaller systems are driven by economic pressure, not politics.

Thankfully, the end of ‘Ozark’ is near. Because it’s running out of gas: You know it’s time to end a show when the audience has a hard time caring about the fate of its main characters.

How HBO’s dreary ‘Gilded Age’ fails the tumultuous era it depicts: Julian ‘Downton Abbey’ Fellowes fields an American period drama and turns a chaotic time in an exciting city into humorless historical bullet points.

Turn on

Streaming recommendations from the film and TV experts at The Times

A woman in a green shirt twirls noodles in a bowl with chopsticks.
Lisa Ling in “Take Out with Lisa Ling.”
(Carmen Chan/HBO Max)

“Take Out With Lisa Ling.” This six-episode HBO Max docuseries showcases the delicious cuisines of the AAPI diaspora, as the award-winning journalist meets the people who run some of America’s best Asian restaurants. While the series explores eateries across the country, two episodes spotlight sections of Southern California — the varied Vietnamese grub of Little Saigon and the unique Japanese offerings of Boyle Heights — and another details the story of Ling herself, whose family is rooted in a Chinese restaurant in Northern California. —Ashley Lee


Before Betty White was Sue Anne Nivens, Rose Nylund or Elka Ostrovsky, she was the star of her own sitcom — one should say her first own sitcom, before the short-lived late-1970s “Betty White Show” — “Life With Elizabeth” (Amazon Prime Video), which ran from 1953 to 1955, and which she co-produced. Most everything is set within the home Elizabeth shares with somewhat irascible but perfectly decent husband Alvin (Del Moore), interrupted by occasional visits from a piano tuner or television repairman or teenager with a crush; this means more Betty per minute, and in a wider range of attitudes, than in her later ensemble-show roles (including pantomime, when she breaks the fourth wall with announcer Jack Narz). She gets in her love of animals as well. Like other shows from this time, it can feel surprisingly naturalistic, even modern, notwithstanding some antique gender references; yet Elizabeth is no simp, but a witty and confident woman, with (as White said of herself) a mind given to puns, who invariably holds her own. Scraps are floating around the internet, but Amazon has conveniently collected 17 episodes, each containing three discrete “incidents.” —Robert Lloyd

Catch up

Everything you need to know about the film or TV series everyone’s talking about

Two parents with their three infant children in a living room
Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore play Jack and Rebecca, the parents of Randall, Kevin and Kate on “This Is Us.”
(Ron Batzdorff / NBC)

When I re-started “This Is Us” (NBC, Hulu) this month, vowing to catch up with NBC’s tear-jerking family drama in time for the series finale, I thought of it as a long-term project: I’ll get there in time for sweeps. Having since torn through three seasons in three weeks, and completed the task months ahead of schedule, that thinking has changed: Where the hell was I all this time?

It’s easy to dismiss its penchant for mysteries and twists as a mere gimmick. It’s fair to call its treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic clumsy, even before it moved on entirely. It’s had problems with fat representation and household appliances. But it turns out that this most underappreciated of series rejects “the trauma plot” more forcefully than the most acclaimed: “This Is Us” does not trace a line of ups and downs so much as construct a web, from tragedy and triumph, past and present, choice and chance. Though it sands down the ragged ordinariness of time to the smooth pebble of the broadcast hour, it refuses, over the long run, to reduce its broken-hearted characters to mere brokenness.

Consider the recent story line in which Nick Pearson (Griffin Dunne), a long-suffering Vietnam veteran now in recovery, goes in search of an old flame, accompanied by his late brother’s widow, Rebecca (the quietly superb Mandy Moore) — who is suffering from Alzheimer’s — and her second husband, Miguel (Jon Huertas) — her first husband’s best friend. On paper, it sounds less like a TV episode than a depressive one. And yet on screen it blossoms, stretches its legs, reaches registers awkward and romantic, painful and funny.


Call me sentimental, but it’s sequences like this that have secured its place — with “Brothers and Sisters,” “Parenthood,” “Queen Sugar,” others — among the genre’s finest-ever entries, more concerned with conjuring emotion than scoring prestige points. There is nothing less cool than spending night after night on your couch crying over a fictional family’s multigenerational saga, and yet I can’t recommend it more highly. Start now and you’ll be done in time for sweeps. I promise. —Matt Brennan

Guest spot

A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching

Jonathan Van Ness in a blue coat with binoculars looking out at a city
Jonathan Van Ness in “Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness.”

Before Jonathan Van Ness joined “Queer Eye,” Netflix’s popular makeover-show reboot, the effervescent grooming expert had an acclaimed podcast about, well, everything. The earliest episode I could find asks, “What is a menstrual cup?” and premiered six years ago this month; the most recent, which dropped Wednesday, asks, “How major are volcanoes?” Now, Van Ness is turning the concept into a TV series: Premiering Friday on Netflix, “Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness” delves into skyscrapers, bugs, snacks, wigs and single axels. Van Ness joined Screen Gab to discuss his latest venture, his obsession with figure skating, and his excitement for HBO’s “The Gilded Age.” —Matt Brennan

What movie or TV show have you watched recently that you’re recommending to everyone you encounter?

I’m really into “Station Eleven” right now. I’m kind of a sucker for any post-apocalyptic story, so that generally is drawing me in, but I love Miranda [played by Danielle Deadwyler] and I hope that she comes back [in the finale]. Because the last we left her she was, like, taped up in a room in Malaysia and I really hope she makes it out.


Is there anything in your queue that you’ve been meaning to catch up on but haven’t had time yet?

I’m really excited for “The Gilded Age.” I haven’t seen Episode 1 yet. I loved “Downton Abbey” — because it’s Julian Fellowes, right?


My body is so f— ready I can’t even stand it. [pauses] I realize now that I am on shows on Netflix. ... Obviously I binged “Cheer” [Season 2], but that only took me, like, eight hours on the dot.

What is your movie/TV comfort food — something you revisit frequently?

2003 World Figure Skating Championships on YouTube. Washington, D.C. I remember it like it was yesterday even though I wasn’t there. S—, after coming off the bronze at Salt Lake City, [Michelle Kwan] coming back, winning Worlds, get outta my face. Also Aly Raisman all-around final 2016 floor routine, that gets me every single time. I re-watch so much figure skating and gymnastics on YouTube. ... We need to make sure that we have continued obsession with figure skating in this country. In Russia, honey, it’s their No. 1 sport. It’s the primetime news over there.


Let’s talk “Getting Curious.” One thing that I was myself curious about was, what’s your process like for generating ideas and then editing those ideas into a format for listeners or viewers?

Shooting our first season in October/November of 2020 and February/March of 2021, we needed to be centrally located. We weren’t really traveling. We weren’t flying in a ton of experts. Having to produce this series in the time when we did produce it ... that was how “Bugs” came about. Because we have the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. We had Jessica Ware in Manhattan. We had the New Jersey Agriculture Center right there. ... The other through-line for us — which I really need to start leading with this; get it together, Jonathan — because this is very true about “Getting Curious” TV and the podcast, I really need to be super-duper curious. I’m probably not going to do an episode on, like, calculus. Unless it’s “Why do I hate math so much?” and then it could be a psychology episode.

Is there any idea that’s been left on the cutting-room floor that you still want to find a way to do?

I’ve got so many ideas for this TV show they are comin’ outta my ears. I cannot even stand it. ... I do want to go train with world-champion pingpong players. I want to get my best Forrest Gump on. Can I be a fierce-ass pingpong player? I’m also kind of like a good pingpong player, so I think that would be surprising for people.

Break down

Times staffers chew on the pop culture of the moment — love it, hate it or somewhere in between

A group of animated figures with a 'WANTED' post for mercenaries in the foreground
A scene from “The Legend of Vox Machina.”
(Amazon Studios)

Debuting Friday on Amazon Prime Video is “The Legend of Vox Machina,” an animated fantasy series geared for adults. Based on a Dungeon & Dragons campaign played by a group of friends — who happen to be professional voice actors — “Vox Machina” reflects both the growing footprint of adult animation and the pop cultural resurgence of tabletop role-playing games.

The series stars Laura Bailey, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Matthew Mercer, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel and Travis Willingham reprising their roles from their long-running campaign, which streamed online and amassed a significant following. In Dungeons & Dragons, each player controls the actions of a character they created through adventures that are guided by a dungeon master. Players’ choices and dice rolls affect the course of the story, which can evolve into a campaign of interconnected adventures.

Mercer, who served as the original’s dungeon master, explains that the creative team “had to sit down and spend weeks in front of a whiteboard” in order to make the adaptation work. He spoke to Screen Gab to break down the series’ appeal to new viewers and longtime fans alike, as well as the resonances between playing D&D and making a TV show.

There are some differences between the original campaign and the show.

“One of the benefits of doing this series is there is a chance to expand a bit on some facets of the world or make some adjustments that make more sense in the shorter format,” says Mercer. This includes fleshing out certain details and non-player characters that weren’t much of a presence originally, as well as having “the opportunity to now see parts of the story from the antagonists’ perspective that normally playing a role-playing game at a table doesn’t allow.”

Skills honed playing D&D can be useful when making TV.

“A dungeon master acts as essentially the narrator … they are all the parts of the story that isn’t what the protagonists are actively doing,” says Mercer. This includes building out the environments, describing what the players are interacting with, portraying the other characters that the players encounter and responding to whatever decisions the players make. “A lot of [being a dungeon master] is problem-solving,” Mercer adds. “A lot of it is adapting and making decisions to solve problems in the moment. [You’re] trying to follow the logic [of the world] and making split-second decisions on how the world and other characters would react. … The confidence that comes with dungeon mastering in those environments makes it easier for you to deal with the unexpected, which always comes inevitably, throughout multiple stages of production.”

Plus, role-playing games come with unique storytelling lessons.

D&D is collaborative storytelling, so “the real magic of the table is working together,” says Mercer. “Nothing, I think, ruins a role-playing game experience faster than a person who is only just playing for themselves.” This means trusting and respecting each other enough to share the spotlight and offer support, but what ultimately makes it a game and not just group improv is the element of chance. “Whenever there is a character conflict, or there is a challenge with a success or failure possibility, we use the dice to decide what succeeds and what fails,” says Mercer. That “teaches you that sometimes, failure is as fun, if not more fun, as success. And you begin to embrace how that unpredictable path can take you in directions that a lot of distilled, scripted stories can’t.” —Tracy Brown


What’s next

The TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on in the coming week

A tattooed man and a blond woman celebrating on a beach
Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee and Lily James as Pamela Anderson in “Pam and Tommy.”
( Erin Simkin/Hulu)

Fri., Jan. 28

“The Afterparty” (Apple TV+): Let TV critic Robert Lloyd explain: “An exceedingly delightful, cleverly constructed, adeptly acted comedy-mystery set around a 15-year high school reunion,” with Tiffany Haddish as a detective who deserves her own spinoff.

“Home Team” (Netflix): Kevin James is (now ex-) New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton in this family film. Set during Payton’s suspension from the NFL for his role in the “bountygate” scandal, in which players were paid bonuses to hurt opponents. Something for all ages.

“Janet Jackson” (Lifetime/A&E): Unlike last year’s brief, focused “New York Times Presents” documentary, this one spans Jackson’s entire career and runs to four hours over two nights. It also involves Jackson herself, which means its treatment of the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl is likely to be the most closely watched TV interview since Adele sat down with Oprah.


“The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” (Netflix): Kristen Bell stars as a suburban wine mom who becomes embroiled in a mystery in this spoof of the “Gone Girl” / “Girl on the Train” / “Woman in the Window” subgenre of crime fiction.

Tues., Feb. 1

“The Real Dirty Dancing” (FOX): Eight celebrities face off in this dance competition featuring routines from the 1987 Jennifer Grey/Patrick Swayze movie, filmed at the Virginia property that served as the original’s Kellerman’s Lodge.

Wed., Feb. 2

“Pam and Tommy” (Hulu): Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s four-day love affair, tumultuous marriage, stolen sex tape and other ’90s tabloid fodder form the center of this scripted miniseries, directed by Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) and developed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Robert Siegel. With Lily James as Pam and Sebastian Stan as Tommy.

Thurs., Feb. 3


“Murderville” (Netflix): Another murder-mystery spoof, this one with Will Arnett and a rotating cast of guest star/partners who have to improvise their way through the-case-of-the-episode.