We gave it a B
In these nasty days of culture war and uncivil discourse, where orange-skinned reality TV stars and bat-swinging, brain-bashing pulp fictions cause us to sweat the state of republic, human decency, and good taste, This Is Us offers uplift as warm and cheerful – and thin – as Ken Bone’s Christmas red Izod sweater. The show is a big tent of entertainment that heartens us with the spectacle of people overcoming their worst parts to love each other as well as they can; it aspires to inspire us to raise the score of our low neighborliness. Jack and Rebecca Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore) and their adult kids — twins Kate and Kevin (Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley) and adopted son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — aren’t just a family; they’re a metaphor for the family of (mostly middle class) man. After a long a day of suffering the latest indignities of the election season and telling my Facebook friends that they’re going to hell if they vote the wrong way, This Is Us melts my calloused soul into a more gracious state… at least until the next push notification from the New York Times returns me to my usual Chicken Little tweeting.
This Is Us is a refreshing respite from the relational violence and pessimism that marks the other buzz soaps that have bubbled forth from a culture of divisiveness, from Empire to the typical Shondaland poli-sci melodrama, from Game of Thrones to The Americans. It’s a heavy companion to comedies like Modern Family and Life In Pieces, and it’s a distant genre cousin to Berlantiverse superhero sagas like The Flash and Supergirl, epics of character refinement and team-mindedness. And it belongs to a crop of new series – including Queen Sugar on OWN, Pure Genius on CBS, No Tomorrow on The CW — that engage chaos and hardship with hearts full of optimism. It’s not a great show, but we’re ready and hungry for everything it represents and tries to be: a remedy for the terrifying doom and gloom of the world; an alternative to so much miserable anti-hero grim and gritty on our screens. Personally, I prefer my dramas of hope and love, reconstruction and reconciliation to be more nuanced and ragged — “cold and broken ‘hallelujahs,'” to borrow from Leonard Cohen. (Which reminds me: please watch Rectify, premiering Oct. 26 on Sundance TV.) In fact, if This Is Us was a cover of “Hallelujah,” it would be the Pentatonix version, not the Jeff Buckley version. Not my taste, but I get the appeal. This Is Us is a bear hug for a culture desperate for a little bit of that human touch.
Created by Dan Fogelman, whose impressive resume includes Galavant and another new drama, Fox’s Pitch, This Is Us initially gained notice for being something square, an old-fashioned family drama, spliced with something cool, a stay-until-the-end big twist serial. It was like NBC had recycled Parenthood as a box of Cracker Jacks filled with bittersweet-flavored cornballs and a novelty toy surprise. (Pitch, a speculative fantasy about Major League Baseball’s first female player, also culminated with a Gotcha! stolen from the Mr. Robot playbook.) The pilot introduced a band of seemingly disparate thirtysomethings, all white save for Randall and his family, navigating choppy, life-changing waters – career change, new love, starting a family, gotta-change-my-life existential angst. As the episode progressed, we learned they were related, and at the end, when Rebecca gave birth to Kevin and Kate (a third child was stillborn) and the Pearsons adopted Randall, a newborn abandoned at a fire station, we realized the show had been pulling our L’eggs. Jack and Rebecca weren’t neo-1970s hipsters; their story was actually taking place in 1979.
Since the pilot, This Is Us has continued to ply us with revelations played for big gasp shockers. In the past, Jack was an alcoholic! In the present, Rebecca is remarried to Jack’s best friend! Sometime in between, Jack died! But I think what holds us and keeps us, at least for now, are all the pretty feels and all the recognizable universals, encoded in a collection of appealing, resonant archetypes that owe much of their power to an even more appealing and exceedingly skilled cast. The stories so far have effectively drawn us into the characters and portend more profound developments to come. Kevin, a hunky TV actor and charming narcissist, seeks to reboot his career with greater substance after quitting his sitcom The Manny, wherein he played a frequently shirtless nanny. His younger-by-seconds sister and best friend Kate struggles with weight, food, and self-esteem and has begun a new romance with Toby (Chris Sullivan), a doughy guy with an irrepressible spirit and non-stop sense of humor who’s absolutely crazy about her. Randall resides in a mostly white, upper middle class enclave of New Jersey and is a successful suit, a happily married father of two daughters, and a perfectionist — a much-talked-about character trait that hangs on him like a ticking bomb. When’s that going to blow up? His storyline would seem to provide the season’s big picture narrative spine: He’s reconnecting with his birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), a man haunted by failures and guilt, and dying of cancer. One imagines a season death-marching toward a hospice denouement that’ll bring the Pearsons to together to grieve, forgive, and love on each other. Buy your tissues now. In bulk.
Each episode also features a flashback story about Jack and Rebecca. Episode 2 visited a tense moment in their marriage due to Jack’s drinking and excavated the strained rapport between Kevin and Randall: Not only did Kevin not protect his brother from racist bullying, but he participated in some of the harassment, too. Episode 3 whiplashed back to 1979 to depict Jack and Rebecca sapped by the exhausting work of their new family unit – juggling three babies, trying to bond with an adopted infant, mourning the child they lost. This allowed the show to bring back one of the pilot’s best assets, Gerald McRaney, who played the beneficent doctor who delivered Kevin and Kate. His unusual, caring interest in the family suggests he might become a recurring character — a godfather, perhaps. (I hope so.) Episode 5 provided valuable insight into Rebecca (she wanted to be a singer) and her struggle with motherhood: She never really wanted to have kids at all. Her triplets, in fact, were conceived after an argument about starting a family, during some make-up sex in a bar bathroom.
This Is Us is a glossy soap of sweeping scope about the buzz values of new age happiness — wellness, connectedness, and stick-with-itness. I can sing praises to all the actors, but for now, I’m going to single out two. Brown – coming off his Emmy-winning breakout in The People v. O.J. Simpson – navigates his scenes with such intelligence, authenticity, and charisma, I yearn for the show to write him more challenging material, just to watch him rock it. Hartley does two difficult things extremely well, with such casual aplomb that his success is easy to underestimate: He finds the right tone on Kevin’s self-centeredness, making it a galling problem for everyone in his life while letting you see the insecurities behind it. And he does a fantastic job at playing an actor who isn’t awesome, but isn’t bad, either; who might be able to improve, but might never be as good as he wants to be, too.
The writing is most impressive on a big picture level, when connecting the dots on character ideas across generations of relationships. Example: Rebecca suffered the neglect of a father, a couch potato who watched Pittsburgh Steelers parked behind a TV tray scarfing the supper cooked by a quiet, obedient wife. She fell in love with Jack, a more attentive, relational man than her father, but also owned by Steelers fandom, and she overcame her pigskin resentments and learned to wave the Terrible Towel with him. Their kids watched games with Fun Time Dad Jack as Rebecca suffered the exhausting, dispiriting grind of being The Responsible Parent. Now, in the present, Kate carries the tradition forward, albeit in the form of a mournful ritual, watching games alone, in her living room, siting on the couch… with an urn of Jack’s ashes. The century-spanning montage that ended the fifth episode suggested a show that could tell different stories about different generations of Pearsons in different time periods. But perhaps the most important development was the disclosure of Jack’s current corporal condition, the subject of much fan theorizing until now. In general, it’s important that the storytelling reveals, as quickly as possible, the formative events that shaped Kevin, Kate, and Randall; it frees up the producers to write richer material for them. Hiding those things – playing them for breathtaking twists – comes at the cost of stunting the characters. You can imagine, for example, how important it is – or should be – to have Randall be able to fully reflect on his relationship, and lack of current relationship, with adopted dad Jack as he processes his experience with biological dad William.
The relationships between the Pearson kids arrived feeling fully formed, more so than the characters themselves, and the ways they lean on each other and grapple with each other are undeniably moving. The have their flaws and their damage, they have their resentments and hurts, but they invariably negotiate their failings and conflicts with humility and love; their belief in family, their goodness, and their real-talk communication – more hand-me-downs from their parents — trump everything. This Is Us does indulge the familiar, cliché conflict resolution dynamics of traditional family drama and sitcoms that only work on TV and rarely work in real life; there’s nothing a hot-take screed, parental speech, and penitent apology can’t assuage. It’s nonetheless incredibly satisfying, especially right now, when our real-world problems feel so insolvable. And yet, as much as the show loves a stormy blow-up or meltdown, it just as frequently models the lost art of emotional de-escalation. Sometimes it does both in the same scene. In one episode, Randall’s wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), nursing a suspicion that William might still be taking drugs, went behind Randall’s back to confront him during a late-night summit. Another series might have allowed William and Randall to feel hurt and rebuke her. Instead, William skipped the indignation, and Beth defused any remaining tension or hurt with a line (“Well, don’t I feel like a bitch”) that ended the matter with reconciling laughter. It wasn’t a great scene – Beth’s suspicion was contrived and demeaning — but I valued the pivot away from conflict and the wisdom in the resolution.
Beats like these strike me as balm for our current division and a model of re-orientation, a move from postures of hostility to postures of hospitality. In episode 2, Kevin – capable of critical self-reflection when he remembers the world isn’t all about him — acknowledged he hasn’t always been a good brother to Randall. “No, you haven’t. But you still have time,” said Randall, who then initiated the rhyme taught to them by their father, a cutesy who-came-first? sum-up of their origin story and re-affirmation of their insoluble bond. (Totally hokey. Totally killed me.) While I suspect there’s more to explore between them and more hurt to vent and heal, that’s still some gutsy grace for a black man to be extending to a semi-woke white guy in 2016. Episode 5 ended with Kevin explaining his theory of life and death with an abstract painting he whipped up as a response to his feelings about his new play. His description narrated a montage that peaked into the distant past, to show his great-grandfather’s immigrant arrival to America, and the near future, with a shot of a mournful Randall packing up William’s clothes, presumably after his biological father’s inevitable death. “This sloppy, wild, colorful, magical thing that has no beginning and no end… I think it’s us.”
With that line, This Is Us was voicing its worldview, and perhaps tacitly copping to some of its early-going aesthetic messiness, too. The writing has had an admirably complex view of human beings and social relationships rooted in passive-aggressive behavior. The flashback in episode 3 saw Rebecca grieving the death of her stillborn child (or rather, avoiding that grief) and struggling to bond with Randall – in general, trying to regain a sense of mastery in her life – and achieving some catharsis and security via indirect, harsh means: by seeking out William and demanding that he attempt no contact with Randall during the course of his life. There’s poignant truth in her strategies for coping and control – too much truth for a compact flashback story to thoroughly explore in a handful of scenes.
Another example, from the fourth episode, examined Randall’s perspective on his racial identity amid his first significant tension with William since finding him and bringing him into his home. He felt quietly judged by the man, a civil rights activist in his younger, healthier days. His resentment masked other hurts – the pain of being abandoned; of dad keeping his distance for decades — and sage, humbled William recognized this and ministered to it with an apology. While affecting, the practice of bundling of issues diminishes each of them. I wish we could have dealt with the various aspects of Randall’s identity with separate, successive episodes that drilled down into each of them, instead of skimming the surface on all of them in one outing.
The resistance to intense serialization in the early going has contributed to the show’s power — each episode aims to be a singular, ecstatic emotional experience – but is quickly working against it. Cherry-picking pivotal moments from the past in non-linear fashion serves each episode’s present-day story by providing context for the adult Pearson kids, but it doesn’t do many favors for Jack and Rebecca. The scattershot chronicle of their lives keeps them fuzzy and superficial. I’m ready for This Is Us to sit in a period of time for multiple episodes and let the writers and actors and reveal Jack and Rebecca through an in-depth treatment of a single catastrophe, joy, or conflict. You could argue that the flashbacks are in an extended overture mode, establishing the major motifs and movements that will be explored more extensively in episodes or seasons to come. We don’t need to know everything about Jack’s alcoholism right now; it’s simply enough to know that he was prone to addictive behavior, because that knowledge informs any number of concerns in the present. (Given that William also has addiction issues, it’ll be interesting to see how perfectionist Randall deals with failure and loss.)
Still, the practice of compression in past and present undercuts the meanings. Sometimes, it seems like This Is Us is terrified of the horror of living that it seeks to boldly confront. I have a dear friend who lost a child at birth; This Is Us captured a fraction of the anguish, aftermath, and long-tail fall-out of that tragedy. (Rebecca is owed a story that allows her to weep and rage over her lost child and shows us how she holds in her mind – or doesn’t – a child she never got to know.) I accept that This Is Us is less about suffering and more about the hope that there is life beyond suffering, in the here and now, and perhaps beyond. Still, I don’t always trust the tone. The pilot worked for me; it had a bittersweet formulation, certainly more sweet than bitter, but the optimism was credible, and the clear-eyed view of tragedy and folly mitigated the sentimentality. Recent episodes have fallen short of that standard. In episode 4’s flashback, young Kate was made to feel ashamed about her shape by a pack of skinny mean girls during a day at the pool. Jack tried to help her deal with her feelings by giving her his favorite shirt, one that he said had magical properties that would allow others to see her as she saw herself. (She chose “a princess.”) This scene could have been directed and performed any number of ways (and perhaps it was). Jack could have been portrayed as more interested in managing his own anxiety than Kate’s. His intervention – which essentially taught his daughter to cover up — could have been depicted as unintentionally reinforcing her shame. I saw none of this nuance or subtext in the takes that were chosen. Jack’s gambit came off as an expression of ace parenting and unconditional fatherly love that was eagerly received by an adoring daughter and successfully dispelled her gloom. (Real talk? The child acting could be better across the board on this show. Perhaps I need to resign myself to the likelihood that the performances will never be good enough to create characterizations worthy of the adult Pearsons.)
The story that bothers me most right now belongs to Kate. I love the idea of a long, evolving arc that explores what it means to be a woman who is heavier than she wants to be, who has struggled with her weight and the issues that comes with it all her life. But surely there is more to Kate than fatness, yes? And surely she has passions and interests that aren’t bound up in dead dad grief and boyfriend pleasing? I find her relationship with Toby interesting because he seems to be an amalgam of her father and brothers, a mix of extroverted idealism and emotional neediness; it’ll be interesting to see if she deconstructs her attraction to him as she (hopefully) reconstructs herself.
Regardless, I’m starting to tire of their romance, mostly because I’m worn out by his overbearing romanticism, some of which I find less impressive than the show does. In episode 5, Kate drew a boundary with him, telling him she preferred to watch Steelers games alone. Toby – suspicious of her isolation or maybe stung by rejection —immediately crossed the boundary, sandbagging her with a football-watching party. His pushy wooing often strikes me as more about him than her, or at least as much. This would be interesting if the show shared that perspective. If it does, I’m not yet seeing it. For now, he’s a wannabe gallant knight trying to rescue a damsel in distress by simply shouting over and over at the top of its lungs: YOU ARE LOVABLE AND DESERVING OF LOVE SO LET ME LOVE YOU ALREADY, GODDAMMIT! In many ways, he embodies everything flawed about This Is Us, a lovable if smothering series about the art of loving that could more artfulness itself. B