This is Us: Dan Fogelman's comedy series is one of the best on television with its take on racial politics, mental trauma
Despite a rocky first episode or two, This is Us finds its footing in a unique way, laying most of its cards on the table
It seems almost ridiculous, at first, that a network soap opera might be one of the best foreign TV shows. The premise alone oozes sentimentality: the Pearson siblings, Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K Brown), who share a playful camaraderie, navigate their adult lives as the series revisits moments from their childhood. Their late father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore), whose romance seems almost idyllic, make up the vast majority of the flashbacks, with different actors at different ages standing in for the kids. The scenes from the ‘80s and ‘90s are set in white American suburbia, and the series’ crux is best summed up as “family.” It’s sentimental to a fault — the music, by Marvel’s Runaways composer Siddhartha Khosla, certainly tugs on the heartstrings — but while its setting sounds run-of-the-mill, the end result is anything but.
To answer a burning question: the show is available on Hotstar in its entirety. Its third season, which returned from a winter hiatus last week, extends its arms in two directions. On the one hand, the series has finally defaulted to delivering melodramatic twists — spoilers to follow — but on the other, it avoids jumping the shark by grounding each reveal in the characters’ deeply personal journeys.
As it turns out, Jack’s younger brother Nicky, whom the family believed had died in the Vietnam war, has been alive this whole time, living just a few hours away. While certainly teased as a “Gotcha!” at first, the twist ties directly into Kevin’s story, that of a man trying to retrace his father’s footsteps in order to find himself, while also avoiding making the same mistakes. Where Jack, now dead for nearly two decades, cut Nicky off for the terrible mistakes he made, Kevin has the chance to right his family’s wrongs. The result is both moving in the moment, and satisfying from the standpoint of the larger story.
Despite a rocky first episode or two, This is Us finds its footing in a unique way, laying most of its cards on the table. See, Jack is dead, and his best friend Miguel (Jon Huertas) is now married to Jack’s widow. There’s nothing sinister about Miguel or his marriage to Rebecca, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t complications. As much as the show is about “family” in the broadest sense, it’s also about the details that define relationships, especially when burdened by trauma and mental illness. Each character has their own subplot, and while few of them ever clash or even intersect on paper, they’re each part of a larger tapestry.
The show’s A-plot, if one can call it that, involves each member of the family trying to better understand each other and figure out what makes them tick. The flashback scenes are key to this, as they imbue even simple traditions and household objects with a tangible sense of memory. In This is Us, a scene of Jack leaving for a work-trip isn’t just a scene of Jack leaving for a work-trip. It’s a scene about the subtle-but-meaningful rituals surround his departure, from a kiss on the cheek, to a neatly folded brown paper bag for his lunch. Given that Jack’s death was sudden and the family never fully recovered from it; the show is also about wrestling with how to keep memories and traditions alive, when they hold so much conflicting meaning.
One year, on a rather disastrous Thanksgiving, Jack wore a silly hat to entertain his kids. It was just a hat, back then. Now it’s “The Hat,” worn by the male head of the household each year to keep the tradition alive. But what if Miguel, an outsider to the Pearson clan, wants to wear “The Hat”? Who gets a say, and what would be the emotional fallout of the kids including him this way, as it pertains to their father’s memory?
Tradition isn’t the only thing driving the show, though it’s most certainly the glue. As the series begins, co-dependent twins Kevin and Kate finally begin to lead lives of their own; Kevin, an actor on a low-brow sitcom, moves to New York and to the world of theatre in the hopes of being taken seriously; Kate, an obese singer on her weight-loss journey, meets her new beau Toby (Chris Sullivan) at one of her meetings, which complicates her journey to bettering herself since they share a similar lifestyle.
Randall, a neurotic African American adoptee born the same day as Kevin and Kate (and prone to nervous breakdowns) completes the trio. He seems like he has his life together. A big house. A beautiful, driven wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). Three amazing, talented daughters, one of whom is adopted and one of whom comes out as gay in an accepting household. Despite his luxuries, Randall’s story begins with him tracking down his birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones) and finding him destitute and dying of cancer.
The characters are consistently fun to watch, whether Kevin’s breezy attitude or Kate’s overt sweetness, but these traits tend to mask wounds un-dealt with. Kevin drinks. Kate eats. Randall works himself to the bone. There’s no quick-fix solution to their vices, other than putting in the work to confront their demons and better themselves, and each other. Even if that means discovering things about their late father that they might not want to hear.
Similarly, Toby, who cracks wise at every given opportunity, does so to deal with his depression, which makes his journey to parenthood with Kate something of a minefield. But the show never takes any short-cuts. It treats each person and their problems with tenderness, but it never treats them AS their problems. They’re so much more than their alcoholism, their obesity and their depression, which is precisely why their stories have stakes.
Where This is Us truly shines, though, is in the story of Randall. The series never shies away from the fact that he’s a Black man raised in a white American family. In his childhood flashbacks, an awareness of his race — and of the larger implications of being Black in America — brings with it stories of gradually coming-into-Blackness. The journey is at once his own as well as his family’s, as they learn that their colour-blind acceptance (a common problem in adoption) is unfair in a world that isn’t colour-blind. Jack and Rebecca’s love for him is never called into question, but they do have set aside their egos and take tips from Black mothers when it comes to Randall’s hair and skincare.
At first glance, This is Us may not strike you as the kind of show that would introduce an Igbo Nigerian supporting character who reads Nnedi Okorafor’s Afrofuturist Binti series as a mere background detail, but one third of the show’s writers room is Black. It’s a significantly higher number than most American shows, and this results in the story’s racial politics being treated with deftness. To put it simply: This is Us is woke. End article.
Okay, wait, there’s more.
Randall faces the perils of being raised in a white world outside of Blackness, but his gradual discovery of his legacy — a trip to Memphis with his birth father to find his musical roots, or enrolling in Howard University, a historically Black college — are a joy to behold. On the other hand, he’s also enjoyed the privileges and protections of being raised by a middle-class white family. This leads to his third season arc, where he tries to give back to his community by enacting political change in his birth father’s district (both heavily Black and Korean), and all the complications therein.
Of course, one can’t really talk about the show without addressing the elephant in the room: 2018 feature film Life Itself, an unmitigated disaster directed by This is Us creator Dan Fogelman. The film had been a passion project of Fogelman’s for decades, and the result feels like it was ripped straight from a first draft he wrote when he was seventeen. In it, Olivia Wilde yells frantically about how “life itself” is the only reliable narrator, a college thesis she concocts shortly after she and Oscar Isaac cosplay characters from Pulp Fiction. The film then goes on to take wrong-headed twists and turns, and somehow ends up sixty years in the future (though everything looks the same as it does today). Its core problem, though, is how it chooses to dramatise its theme.
The film’s narrator — later revealed to the be protagonists’ granddaughter — speaks of how each of us is not only our own story, but the stories of everyone who came before us and the stories of everyone who will follow. It’s a potent narrative idea, that our life has meaning beyond ourselves, but here, it takes the form of an overwrought morality play about suicides and accidental deaths and *checks notes* oh dear, a young boy witnessing a pregnant woman’s death, being traumatised by it his whole life, and eventually marrying the baby she was carrying (though they never seem to discuss this cosmic coincidence). In any case, give it a watch if you like to be shocked by audacious cinematic misfires, but Life Itself is also an interesting creative artifact when it comes to This is Us.
Made well after the show premiered, Life Itself is still a time capsule of the creative instincts Fogelman once settled on and seemingly refused to budge from. This is Us, however, represents a similar thematic conclusion coming to fruition with more, shall we say, nuance. It helps that Fogelman has now a whole team of writers and directors around him to channel his intentions, many of them Black women; one episode was even directed by Regina King, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Where Life Itself is on the nose about what it wants to say (in that characters yell it right into each other’s faces), This is Us defaults to the metaphor of a Jackson Pollock-esque abstract painting. Randall’s father William comes up with the analogy for his granddaughters, but the painting continues to hang in the background, becoming a momentary focus when the story hops between multiple timelines, exploring the forces that shape our own lives and each other’s lives in the process. Each layer and each new coloured line represents a new person, and a new life lived. Their overlap, once you step back and look at the bigger picture, is something whole. Something universal.
Not only does the show live up to the ambition of this metaphor, digging into each path, each trajectory and each person who impacts the characters, but the painting is also used to help children come to terms with death, a looming spectre throughout the series. It digs into both the shared trauma of sudden loss (in the case of Jack Pearson), and simply, the confusion of death even when it’s inevitable and peaceful, flashing back on an entire life lived when William’s time finally comes after he helps Randall discover his lineage. The show paints a complete, beautiful picture of who William was, and who Jack was, as if to prepare the other characters, at once, for memories yet to be lived, and memories to be looked back on, right at the end. Ironically, the show is about life itself.
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