When This Is Us debuted in September 2016, it was the rare scripted drama on network TV to get the kind of buzz we've become accustomed to seeing for shows on premium cable and streaming. The NBC series debuted to massive ratings, with more than 10 million people tuning in live on premiere night, and an additional 4.5 million over the next seven days. Just a few weeks into its run, This Is Us was proclaimed the “breakout hit of the fall TV season,” and things only got better from there: the show earned five Primetime Emmy nominations for its freshman season, including Outstanding Drama Series (where it was the lone broadcast title in the category), and an Outstanding Lead Actor win for Sterling K. Brown.
Six years later, much has changed for the Pearsons. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) have stared down death, The Big Three have each had children of their own, and other new faces, young and old, have left their mark on the family. But while past season premieres of This Is Us were met with great interest, tonight the series returns for its sixth and final season with little fanfare. What happened?
Perhaps the show just ran its course. Few series are able to sustain the kind of popularity that This Is Us enjoyed in its earlier seasons. Or maybe the declining relevance of network television in general is to blame. But something else happened concurrent with the show's decline in popularity, and that something is actually a someone: Chrishell Stause, star of Netflix’s Selling Sunset and the aggrieved party in a very public divorce from This Is Us’ Justin Hartley. Hear us out.
After coming up together in the soap opera world, Chrishell and Justin married in October 2017. Chrishell began a real estate career under her new husband’s last name, and in mid-2018, Selling Sunset’s cameras followed her as she joined Los Angeles brokerage The Oppenheim Group, where her wide-eyed, “girl next door” nature earned her an immediate enemy in Christine Quinn. Justin didn’t appear in the Netflix reality show, but Chrishell had no problem bringing him up on-camera. “So, my husband is Justin Hartley. Maybe you’ve heard of him,” she said in one of her first talking head interviews. “He’s on a show, This Is Us. I love him to death.”
Over the next two seasons, which were taped throughout 2019, Chrishell continued to praise Justin, often holding up her relationship as an example for the other girls. Off-camera however, things weren’t quite what they seemed. In November 2019, Justin filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences” and listing the date of their separation as July 8. Chrishell told a very different story: in the second half of Selling Sunset Season 3, she revealed she was “in shock” over the situation, as Justin informed her of his sudden decision via text, just 45 minutes before he submitted the paperwork. Needless to say, it wasn't a great look for Justin Hartley, and Selling Sunset took every opportunity to paint him as a villain who took advantage of Chrishell’s kindness and naïveté.
When you put Chrishell and Justin’s divorce, the release of Selling Sunset, and This Is Us’ ratings on a single timeline, it's hard not to draw some conclusions. In Fall 2019, ratings for This Is Us Season 4 remained relatively consistent from the previous season, with 7.88 million viewers tuning in for the premiere, but after its Christmas break — during which Chrishell and Justin’s faces were plastered all over the tabloids — live viewership dropped below 7 million for the first time in the show’s four-year history. The season ended down 2.2 million from Season 3.
If This Is Us started its freefall amid Chrishell and Justin’s highly-publicized divorce, it really took a nosedive after she put him on blast in Selling Sunset Season 3, which debuted in August 2020. After a relatively strong Season 5 premiere, This Is Us began hemorrhaging fans in late 2020, falling to a series-low of 4.53 million live viewers towards the end of the season. The May 2021 season finale, once a guaranteed ratings-getter, was watched by just 5.14 million people.
But ratings don’t tell the whole story. Throughout This Is Us’ five-season run, Hartley’s character, Kevin, has been depicted as a self-centered brother who takes out his frustrations on his siblings, particularly Randall (Brown). While Kevin has been somewhat redeemed in recent years, it’s hard to get beyond decades of him bullying Randall, and for many, the turmoil in Hartley’s personal life may have been the last straw. Watching a kind, lovable actor play a terrible person on TV (hello, Succession) is one thing, but watching someone whose character seems to affirm their worst real-life qualities is another.
Even industry types can be swayed by IRL drama. This Is Us’ first three seasons all earned Outstanding Drama Series nominations, plus additional nods for Brown, Ventimiglia, Moore, and Chrissy Metz (Justin Hartley remains the only Pearson parent or sibling without an Emmy nomination). In 2020, however, the TV Academy declined to nominate This Is Us Season 4 for the honor; Brown earned the show’s lone Primetime Emmy nomination, though Ron Cephas Jones and Phylicia Rashad were both nominated Outstanding Guest Actor and Actress at the Creative Arts Emmys, with Jones winning the award.
With the NBC series returning to the Outstanding Drama Series category in 2021, the implication is clear (at least to this conspiracy-minded writer): Emmys voters are Team Chrishell, and the 2020 snub was meant to hold Justin Hartley accountable for his perceived mistreatment of the soap star-turned-Valley real estate maven.
Did Selling Sunset and Chrishell Stause kill This Is Us? We’ll never know for sure, but if the lukewarm reception for Season 6 is any indication, Chrishell may have been the proverbial Crock-Pot that led to This Is Us’ demise.
This Is Us Season 6 premieres Tuesday, January 4 at 9:00 PM ET on NBC.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.