As I watched the first episode of NBC’s This is Us last fall, I smirked, shook my head, and rolled my eyes. The buzz about the show had been all over my Facebook feed, so my wife and I checked it out. She finished the pilot episode in tears; I was less impressed — it felt manipulative, gimmicky, and too reliant on a twist ending.
But I reluctantly gave the second episode a chance. And then the third. And the fourth. Before I knew it, This Is Us evaporated my cynicism and won me over. Like millions of viewers, I was hooked. Much of what turned me off initially is still part of the show — the a-bit-too-perfect speeches by characters that sound nothing like things people ever really say, the musical cues scientifically optimized to trigger tears, and the gratuitous Apple product-placement shots in every episode. But it doesn’t matter. I’m all-in with the Pearsons.
[Quick warning: what follows includes about 218 spoilers about Season 1 of This Is Us]
As season one has come to an end, Vulture’s Jen Chaney theorizes about why This is Us has been a ratings hit, while arguably comparable (or better) NBC shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood (two of my favorite shows) weren’t. She suggests that the key difference is that it serves as a “comforting body pillow of a TV show,” doling out loss and tragedy, but balanced with a sunny cosmic optimism that reassures viewers that things will work out in the end. The show, she says, is “a mirror whose glass is at least semi-rose-colored… Life is hard, This Is Us tells us, but it also comes with a built-in safety net.”
There may be some truth to this, but I think the distinction is overstated. Friday Night Lights often ended with moments of improbable triumph and unlikely comebacks (Coach Taylor’s bag of trick plays was never quite empty); more often than not, characters who made bad choices redeemed themselves in the end. Parenthood often flirted with major crises — Zeke’s financial troubles, Amber’s self-destructive choices, Joel and Julia’s separation and near-divorce, Crosby and Adam’s looming business failure, Kristina’s breast cancer — that sidestepped tragedy in favor of a tear-jerking happy resolution. All three shows draw you in and dare you to fall in love with their characters, bring you along as those characters face adversity, but ultimately reassure you with resolutions that leave viewers satisfied that there is reason for hope and optimism in the universe.
To me, what sets This is Us apart from its NBC predecessors isn’t its optimism or “rose-colored” outlook, but its investment in time and history. What at first struck me as a gimmick in the pilot — that the show was actually following two different timelines, one in 1980 and the other in the present — turns out to be the element that gives the show more depth than many critics give it credit for having.
One of the reasons that Lost struck a cord with viewers was the way it wove flashbacks into the narrative of the show. Episodes would often zoom in on one character, juxtaposing their present-day situation and challenges with scenes from their life before crashing on the island. Those flashbacks weren’t a lazy narrative shortcut; they deepened the characters, rounded them out, made them more complex than their good looks or their personality. Jack Shepard wasn’t just a handsome, heroic do-gooder with a medical degree; he was haunted by his relationship with his father. Sawyer wasn’t merely an unshaven rogue with a bad attitude; his life as a con man and hustler followed the childhood trauma of watching his father kill his mother, then himself. John Locke was shaped by his experience as a foster child, a victim of high school bullying, and an injury that left him partially paralyzed. Although Lost eventually collapsed under the weight of its infinitely complicated plot and an over-reliance on mysteries as a narrative device, the most enduring part of the show today is how it created rich, compelling characters by showing us their history and how it made them into who they were now.
This Is Us uses the same technique, without Lost’s supernatural hocus pocus. When a character faces a tough decision, we often see how they faced a similar challenge in the past. Our sense of their struggle is informed by having seen them shaped by moments as children or teenagers. This Is Us jumps around in time, mostly hopping between the ’80s, ’90s, and present day. Sometimes, it skips back further and gives us a glimpse of the older characters as children in the ’40s and ’50s. All of these moments show us the life experiences that made these people who they are now, and give every current decision more weight.
We get to know Randall as a father and a husband, facing present-day challenges, but we also see some of his formative experiences as an adopted African-American boy growing up in a white family. That layered experience gives his character more depth. It feels like we know Randall because we witnessed him trying awkwardly to connect with other African-American kids at a public pool as a kid, we saw him as a little boy, struggling to fit in at home and in school, we were there when he had a tenth birthday party and only a couple kids showed up, and we watched him suffer through panic attacks in high school.
Likewise, Kate — a main character who has been most underserved by the show’s writers and given little to do that doesn’t involve her weight — still has real depth because of what we know about her history. Despite her thin present-day storyline, we care about her because of what we know from earlier timelines: she has felt the sting of being judged and bullied about her appearance since she was a little girl, as a pre-teen, she struggled to live in the shadow of her mother’s stunning good looks, and she carries with her guilt and emptiness from death of her father. Because we watched Jack lift her up so many times as a kid and teenager, his absence in her life in the present feels that much more painful.
This illusion of shared experiences with the characters in This Is Us creates a richer sense of knowing the Pearson kids. Unlike the Braverman family in Parenthood, viewers are given a rich sense of each character’s lifetime. The story isn’t just about what’s happening now, but about what has happened throughout their lives and how it got them to this moment.
There are certainly other reasons This Is Us has done well. Most obviously, the acting is phenomenal, and so even in moments where the scriptwriters seem to be showing off a bit with a character monologue, the actors are so damn good that you don’t care. Secondly, while this is a show about a mostly white family, there is Randall’s family, which is its own modern, middle-class African-American family, which I imagine allows the show to appeal to a more diverse audience Friday Night Lights or Parenthood ever did. Finally, there’s the very rich, satisfying sense of connection between the “big three” siblings: Randall, Kate, and Kevin. Throughout the first season, they often clash and fight, but we also see key scenes where they support each other in times of need. Who doesn’t want to imagine that in their darkest moments, their brother or sister will run to them and be by their side?
To Jen Chaney’s point, there’s no question the show has its moments of fantasy-fulfillment, where characters have poignant moments of perfection that most of us rarely see in real life. But that’s OK. When my own father died in 2015, I wish I could have had the kind of goodbye Randall shared with William. And maybe that’s the point: This Is Us nudges us to think about our own lives — the good and bad — and suggests, in a very sincere and heartfelt way, that we can do a little bit better, for ourselves and those we love.
Not bad for a TV show.