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

Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia as Jack. (Ron Batzdorff/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.

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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.

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Of course, “This Is Us” airs after NBC’s hit “The Voice,” which gives it a nice boost. The Tuesday edition of “The Voice” has been averaging about 12 million viewers this year, so “This Is Us” is holding onto a large amount of the singing show’s audience. Some of the other new breakout shows have the same benefit. The Dr. Phil-based drama “Bull” (15.6 million viewers and 20.5 million with DVR viewing for its pilot) airs after “NCIS,” the most-watched show on TV. Kevin James’s “Kevin Can Wait” (11 million viewers for its pilot’s first airing) follows “The Big Bang Theory.”

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.

At first, it seemed like “This Is Us” was going with what worked, revealing another huge twist in the second episode (in the future, Rebecca is remarried to Jack’s best friend) and another minor one in the third (Rebecca actually met Randall’s biological father years ago). The fourth episode did not feature any twists, so writers must have been confident they no longer needed that motivation to keep viewers watching — and it looks as if they might be right.

Read more:

‘This is Us’: Let’s talk about the big twist in the pilot

What counts as a ‘hit’ show these days? Don’t worry — even the experts have no idea.

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