TV blog: This Is Us

Benjie Goodhart / 01 December 2016

Magical, tender, funny and sweet – new US drama This Is Us starts this month. Plus, the best of the rest of the week ahead on TV.

This Is Us, Tuesday 6th December, 9pm, Channel 4

The latest in a long line of Channel 4 dramas imported from the US opens with four seemingly unrelated people celebrating their 36th birthdays. The first one is Jack, hanging out with his pregnant wife Rebecca. When I say pregnant, she looks 23 months pregnant. That is one humungaloid bump. My wife had polyhydramnios which means an excess of fluid causing the bump to grow too large, and Rebecca makes her look concave. Oh. They’re expecting triplets. That explains it. Rebecca’s waters break. “Me and the kids are going to have the same birthday,” yelps Jack. He’s clearly an optimist. My wife was in labour for two days. It was exhausting. I think she felt the same.

Next up is another large lady, Kate. Only Kate isn’t 23 months pregnant, she’s just a little too fond of the route from the couch to the fridge. She’s unhappy with her size. She’s taken to leaving labels on her food saying things like “Don’t eat me.” Because that works. Yes siree.

Then there’s Kevin. Kevin is a hugely successful actor. Only he’s unhappy too. His success has come in a sitcom called The Manny, in which he plays the eponymous hero, who seems to spend each scene with his shirt off, holding a baby. It’s basically a TV version of the old Athena poster teenage girls had on their walls in the 1980s. He finds his role unfulfilling, and the work demeaning. Personally, if I had abs like that, I’d pretty much insist on a role that had me taking my shirt off in every scene.

And then there’s successful businessman Randall, who has a very nice corner office, thankyouverymuch, but some unresolved emotions. He’s tracking down his father (who later turns out to be called William Hill – what are the odds on that?)

I could go on, but I really don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say, as we enter the final month of 2016, this may just be my favourite drama of the year. The writing is magical – tender, sweet, funny and utterly charming. There is a gorgeous cameo from a septuagenarian doctor, and at the end of the episode, a brilliant twist that puts everything you’ve seen so far in a different light.

The whole cast is new to me – Rebecca is played by Mandy Moore, who I’m told is a purveyor of popular music. But whoever they are, they’re all brilliant. This is an absolute gem of a show, arriving on our screens with surprisingly little fanfare. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster, Monday 5th December, 9pm, BBC Two

Did you know the Titanic had a much less famous but equally beautiful younger sister? We’re talking about a 48,158 ton behemoth. And just four years after the Titanic sank, the Britannic also went down, in the Mediterranean, on 21st November, 1916. Acting as a hospital ship, it was the largest vessel lost during the First World War, and is the largest wreck currently under the sea.

To mark the centenary of this event, the BBC have sent Kate Humble and underwater explorer Andy Torbet to tell the story of the ship that “suffered an almost identical fate” to the Titanic. Excepting, of course, that the Med wasn’t exactly packed with icebergs. And the loss of life was far greater on one than the other. And one was caused by hubris, the other by conflict. But apart from the causes, the responsibility, and the result, everything was almost identical.

Actually, there is no need to inject such hyperbole into the narrative, because the tale itself is extraordinary enough – and beautifully told here. Using actors performing from diaries, letters and memoirs, the events of the day are related with urgency and atmosphere. Humble meets some of the descendants of survivors, and Torbet dives to the vast wreck 400 feet beneath the waves.

The stories told include those of Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic only to have a remarkable escape on the Britannic, and Archie Jewell, who was a lookout on both ships (not exactly something you’d put high up on your CV). Among those who Humble talks to is wreck owner Simon Mills. It’s a bit of an odd thing to own. I bought my wife a second-hand laptop the other day and I thought she was going to punch me. I think if I bought her a shipwreck, I’d be sleeping on the sofa. In the shipwreck.

The sinking of the Britannic is an extraordinary story, a catalogue of bad luck and occasional misjudgements. Those who died met with a quite horrific fate (it’s not what you think) and many of those who survived were traumatised. And, astonishingly, the boat, supposedly the safest on the seas, went down in 55 minutes, three times faster than the Titanic.

The best… and the rest

Sunday 4th December

I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, 9pm, ITV: The live final. Due to the presence of my father-in-law for the last few weeks, I’ve been forced to endure this show, only to realise why I used to rather like it. This year has featured a likeable crop of slebs, and I’m grateful to my father-in-law for reintroducing me to it. But PLEASE GET OFF MY SEAT ON THE SOFA, BILLY!!!

Monday 5th December

Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan, 8:30pm, BBC One: Docudrama about the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011, an incident that led to the worst riots for a generation. Dramatic reconstructions are intercut with interviews with key players.

BRITs Icon: Robbie Williams, 9pm, ITV: A musical look at the charismatic warbler’s stellar career including songs, surprises and guest appearances.

Tuesday 6th December

Slum Britain: 50 Years On, 10pm, Channel 5: Half a century after the charity Shelter was launched, we look at stories of slums, housing crises, and homelessness both past and present. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Wednesday 7th December

Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, 8pm, Channel 4: If there is an exact opposite of Danny Dyer on TV it is probably Kirstie Allsopp. Tonight, she floats about being all posh and making Christmas wreaths from pinecones. Probably. First in a three-part series.

I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, 8pm, ITV: One last trip down under, to find out about the aftermath of the show’s final. Expect the Jungle King or Queen to yabber on about how they never thought it would be them, while signing a new deal to write for OK! and present Loose Women.

In Plain Sight, 9pm, ITV: New three-part drama series based on the hunt for post-war Scottish killer Peter Manuel. The always-watchable Douglas Henshall stars.

The Big Life Fix with Simon Reeve, 9pm, BBC Two: A team of inventors attempts to help people in need, including a terminally ill photographer, a remote Welsh village, and a designer with Parkinson’s.

Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, 9pm, BBC One: A dramatized account of the key moments in the lives of Henry VIII’s wives, intercut with expert commentary from the marvellous Worsley (not to be confused with Cardinal Wolsey). First of three.

Finding My Twin Stranger, 10pm, Channel 4: Apparently we all have doppelgangers in this world. Mine, I am told, is either William Hague, Phil Collins or Brad Pitt (although admittedly the last is my own suggestion). This programme looks at people who have tracked down their identical, but entirely unrelated, opposite numbers.

Thursday 8th December

Extraordinary Weddings, 9pm, ITV: Meeting couples about to take the plunge in spite of some extraordinary hurdles they’ve had to overcome en route to the aisle. Puts worrying about the Chicken Chasseur into perspective.

Friday 9th December

Ball and Boe: One Night Only, 9pm, ITV: Michael Ball and Alfie Boe come together for a night of song (what did you expect, cookery?) ahead of the release of their new album, Together, a collection of death metal and hardcore techno tracks from the 1990s. (Okay, a collection of musical theatre numbers…)

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