NBC’s ‘This Is Us’ is officially the surprise breakout hit of the fall TV season

Mandy Moore plays Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia is Jack in “This Is Us.”
Mandy Moore plays Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia is Jack in “This Is Us.” NBC

It’s exactly a month into the fall TV season, just long enough that we can finally start to tell which freshman broadcast shows might have a real, lasting effect beyond their initial episode order.

So far, several of the highest-rated new broadcast fall shows are on CBS, including “Bull,” “MacGuyver” and “Kevin Can Wait.” This is not shocking, as the network is generally the most-watched in total viewers. ABC’s much-hyped “Designated Survivor” is also doing well, nearly doubling the audience of its first airing with its DVR viewing. The more surprising show that looks as if it’s going to be a hit? NBC’s drama “This Is Us,” the family drama starring Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown. It airs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

No one really knows how to qualify a “hit” these days; after all, Nielsen ratings can’t account for all of the ways that people watch TV now. But “This Is Us” is starting off with extremely solid numbers. The pilot scored 10 million same-day viewers; with DVR viewing factored in, that jumped to 14.6 million. Adweek reports that the premiere had the most social media activity out of any new fall show, including cable.

Hours before the second episode aired, NBC announced it picked up the show for a full season; that night, the show stayed steady with 8.7 million viewers, increasing to 13.9 million with DVR. In the third week, 9.9 million tuned in — making it the rare new series to climb back up in the ratings after its second-episode drop. The fourth episode, which aired Tuesday, stayed steady with 9.6 million viewers, according to overnight data.

So, why is the success of “This Is Us” surprising? Mostly because it’s a thoughtful, emotional, multilayered drama — frankly, not always the type of show that survives on a network in the cutthroat “peak TV” environment. Clearly viewers are not losing patience, even when the show gets saccharine.

One smart move was for the show to promote a big “twist” in the pilot to keep viewers guessing — and it worked, when it was revealed (spoiler alert!) that the show takes place in two different time periods. Moore and Ventimiglia play Rebecca and Jack, parents in the 1980s who are struggling to raise twins and their adopted son, Randall (Brown). The show also features the kids grown up in 2016: Randall is happy with his wife and family but dealing with the discovery of his biological father. Kate (Chrissy Metz) finds love as she’s starting a difficult weight-loss journey. and Kevin (Justin Hartley) is a Hollywood actor in the aftermath of a career meltdown.