This article contains spoilers for “This Is Us.”
The Pearson family is winning over Americans—and it’s no surprise.
The NBC family drama, which straddles a delicate tightrope between heartwarming and heartbreaking, broke recent records with the Super Bowl night episode. Sunday’s episode became the most-watched TV program to follow the Super Bowl in six years, scoring a whopping 27 million viewers.
In this splintered era of thousands of TV shows, video games, and internet sites, nearly one out of 10 Americans sat down to watch an episode about the death of Jack Pearson, the family patriarch.
They watched as Jack helped his family escape a burning house, then returned to retrieve daughter Kate’s beloved dog. They watched as present-day Kate struggled with her guilt that her crying for her dog could have caused her dad to go back in—and inhale the smoke that triggered a fatal heart attack hours later. (The show shifts between several time periods in the characters’ lives, showing how the actions of the past echo still in the present.)
They watched as Jack’s sons, present-day Kevin and Randall, each coped with grief in his own way: Kevin telling his dead dad that he would become a better man, and Randall hosting an exuberant Super Bowl party to remember the joy his dad contained.
They watched—and if they’re like most viewers of “This Is Us,” they felt.
That’s because “This Is Us” is a rare TV show that looks at both life’s ups and downs, its magic and its wounds. It looks at the amazing things people can do for those they love, and it examines the horrible things people can do to those they love. Its characters are true mixtures of good and bad, complicated people who struggle and fail and sometimes succeed.
More Than a Weepy Melodrama
Critics—or to employ the language of Taylor Swift, “haters,”—dismiss “This Is Us” as a manipulative, mawkish, overly sentimental melodrama.
Annnnnd … they’re not entirely wrong.
Particularly in its first season, the show often seemed to plunge into emotional situations it hadn’t fully earned, and coax tears for characters not yet much loved or known.
But as the characters have further developed, especially in this second season, the series has become better—although it does seem there’s a quota that every episode feature at least one tear-jerking moment.
Ultimately, this show, imperfections and all, still has its own kind of magic—because of the rare, enormous range of its vision. Unlike depressing dramas like “Mad Men,” unlike complacent sitcoms like “Modern Family,” “This Is Us” sees that family life can be both tough and awesome, and that members of a family can likewise have both wonderful gifts and tremendous flaws.
Jack is both willing to do whatever he can for his wife and kids—such as going into a burning house to rescue a beloved dog—and is, at different points in the series, unable to overcome his alcoholism.
Rebecca, just after learning one of her baby triplets died, can open her heart to adopting abandoned baby Randall—but she is also the same woman who can’t bring herself to tell her son his biological dad is still alive, because she’s so afraid of losing him.
The Pearson kids are as complicated as their parents: struggling drug addict and movie star Kevin shares his dad’s desire to be numb to certain pains; severely overweight Kate struggles to let her genuinely good fiancé Toby be there for her; and Randall, who’s basically perfect … except for the fact that he, like his dad Jack, gets frustrated with the fact that he can’t necessarily rush in and fix everything.
The Power of Relationships
We also see how relationships change people, for better and for worse, in “This Is Us.”
We watch child Randall, hurt that his brother Kevin scoffs at him—and we learn that Kevin felt jealous of the affection Rebecca seemed to more easily bestow Randall’s way. (And in a heartbreaking family therapy scene, an emotional Rebecca shouts that it was just “easier” to show affection to Randall, because he wasn’t as prickly, as tricky to read as Kevin.)
We observe child Kate, annoyed by her mother’s pushing her to eat differently—and we hear young mom Rebecca fretting to Jack that her daughter will face a lifetime of cruel treatment if she can’t change her appearance. We watch Rebecca get round after round of criticism from her mom, and we learn Jack’s dad was an alcoholic.
But we also see how Toby’s faithful love is changing Kate, how he encourages her to be open to happiness and to be true to her dream of a beautiful wedding, despite her insecurities. We see how daughters Tess and Annie are changing Randall.
“All I ever wanted to do with my life was be half the dad [Jack] was. And I was so scared about that, that I wouldn’t be good when the time came,” Randall tells a troubled Tess in the Super Bowl episode.
“And then you were born, and my life flipped. I did a somersault, you know, and I realized I don’t even have to try at this. I’m going to be the best dad ever because I love this little girl so much that I don’t even have a choice. You’re my No. 1, baby girl. You’re the little girl that made my life somersault.”
No Fairy Tale Endings
But “This Is Us,” sentimental as it can be, never pretends that a good marriage and family is enough to obtain the perfect “happily ever after.” The show, while it has largely shied away from religion, seems to agree with the idea that all human beings have some brokenness, even if the term “original sin” has never crossed a character’s lips.
After all, as many as three of the five main characters struggle with addiction: Jack with alcohol, Kevin with drugs, and, if we take Kevin’s view of things, Kate with food. When Rebecca asks Kevin how he’d traditionally spent the anniversary of Jack’s death, it’s clear how pain-averse Kevin had become: He tells her he’d drink himself into a stupor and then sleep with an attractive woman.
But time and time again, characters do try to live, without using addiction to numb the downs of life itself.
Jack fights his demons, spending his time as a recovering alcoholic building shelves for his home so his hands are busy. Kate goes to meeting after meeting of fellow food disorder strugglers. Kevin checks into rehab and pledges to his dad, on the first anniversary of his death, that Kevin doesn’t drink himself into a stupor, that he’s going to become a better man.
In addition to showing the characters’ weaknesses, the show is realistic about how our own hopes and dreams can be crushed in the bigger world.
We see Rebecca’s frustration, as she copes with three teens, that she neglected her own dreams of becoming a singer, and we learn that Jack, too, abandoned his dreams of owning his own business. Decades later, Kate is following in Rebecca’s footsteps, also struggling to make it as a singer. Randall is reunited with his biological dad—only to lose him to cancer not too long after. Kevin gets the dream of being a movie star, and winning back the love of his high school sweetheart and ex-wife, only to discover that even with all that, he cannot ignore the lure of drugs.
And of course, there’s always the tough fact that there’s no bringing Jack back, that the day after Super Bowl Sunday 1998 was their last with him.
In an episode where Jack and Rebecca have been married for years, and have been shaken by the divorce of two of their friends, the couple sit on the bathroom floor of their first apartment and read the wedding vows they recited so long ago.
“I know things may not always be easy—” Jack reads, and Rebecca laughs ruefully, saying, “That should have been my red flag.”
“No take-backs now,” Jack wryly replies. “You’re stuck with me.”
And then he reads the rest of the sentence: “ … but our love has always been worth it.”
In an America, where plenty of us seem willing to sleepwalk our way through life at least a little—whether by swallowing unnecessary pain killers, chugging alcohol, regularly smoking pot, or snarfing down loads of junk food—“This Is Us” pushes a powerful counternarrative: that the best life is the one as fully lived as possible, both in its joys and its sorrows.
It’s not an easy life. But it’s genuinely wonderful.