“There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.”
Family dramas have been losing their audience over the years with epic series and crime dramas taking over television. Gone are the days when chaotic, bittersweet dramas like Brothers and Sisters, Parenthood or Six Feet Under told stories of dysfunctional families that somehow managed to get it together, often delving into the subject of togetherness and family life. Who doesn’t like a good ol’ sappy show anyway?
At a time when shows like Narcos, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things and several other originals have ushered in what is called the ‘golden age of American television’, the series This Is Us manages to stave off the sappy family-drama stereotype and present something complete different.
Released in 2016, the show is one of the few series that effectively uses nostalgia as its primary plot device, heavily relying on emotional re-runs while perfectly encapsulating memories of the past and present. The show, much like most American family dramas, focuses on a White, middle class family – The Pearsons.
But, there’s something different here.
Each character has been created with so much heart and a background story that weaves in the how and the what of a family which looks perfect but are just as damaged as every family. Far from being a show that deals with ‘First World problems’, this show offers a peek into fractured relationships, death, and the turmoils that repeatedly surface, much like opening old wounds again and again. But at the same time, the show offers the belief that no family is perfect.
The show is essentially about Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore), a couple who gets married in the late 70s. Like two peas in a pod, Jack and Rebecca are two good looking people who meet one night and remain inseparable, correcting each other’s flaws in the entire journey they share for 21 years.
The first episode focuses on the birth of their triplets – Kate, Kevin, and Kyle. And while Rebecca goes into labour, a newborn black baby, abandoned at a fire station by a young father, reaches the hospital. Kyle dies, but Jack, (and later Rebecca) adopt the abandoned baby, naming him Randall. And from then on, things are different at the Pearsons, who are often regarded as the perfect White family who take in an abandoned black child and nurture him as their own.
The series shifts to how the three children grow up to be adults dealing with their own personal crisis, something similar to what Jack and Rebecca did but managed to storm through. At 37, the triplets are on their own but always have each other’s back. Kate is a struggling, obese singer who always mollycoddles Kevin, who in turn grows up to be a popular soap opera star. Randall the Intelligent, appears to be the sorted one who has two daughters with his wife, Beth. He, however, meets his biological father, the same man who abandoned him at the fire station on his 37th birthday and they make amends.
But while it almost appears that the Pearsons have somehow turned out fine over the years, it’s revealed that Jack Pearson died when the triplets were 17, a tragic death that adversely affects the family for the rest of their lives. The narrative shifts from the 80s, the 90s, and present time, and how without Jack, the triplets manage, holding onto 17 years-worth memory of their father.
For the triplets, Jack is the best father anyone could have asked for. Especially Kate, who often found comfort in her father’s sweet words to her. Kevin, who was a bit of a rebel while growing up, often clashed with Jack. But, over the years, Kevin always held on to one of Jack’s chain that helped him get through the toughest days in his life. As for Randall, Jack was the father figure he deserved and took to him instantly, mourning his loss just as much as he mourns the loss of his biological father 20 years later.
In the ongoing second season, the episode ‘Super Bowl Sunday’ explains how Jack died. The careful details and setting of Jack’s death continue to have many reeling with shock. Some would say it’s as good as mourning a real person.
My heart is aching and breaking like Jack is real. Whew #ThisIsUs
— 🇳🇬NaijaGal🇳🇬 (@Naija4LifeO) February 7, 2018
This is the most painful way they could’ve killed jack because they all thought he was safe. They all thought he would be okay. And worse of it all he died alone & THEY COULDNT SAY GOODBYE THEY COULDNT SAY I LOVE YOU FOR A LAST TIME #thisisus pic.twitter.com/Fdlyxsy7r9
— j🥃 (@smoaked_queen) February 5, 2018
— MAGOCH👽 (@XOMAGOCH) February 5, 2018
Apart from focusing on family and love, the show stands out because of its sensitive portrayal of mental health issues, addiction, colour and gender equality. In several instances with respect to Randall’s character, there is angst and alienation by the people of his skin colour, often snubbing the ‘black kid with white parents’. Genuinely befuddled as a child, Randall struggles with his identity over the years and one can watch his exasperation reach a crescendo when his biological father dies. His nervous breakdown is gut wrenching, and instead of showcasing him as a damaged human being, the show beautifully portrays a man who suffers an irreparable loss but works towards fixing it. And what’s even better is that he has the support of his brother and wife. Patience, in This Is Us, is a theme that runs high, and while families do lose patience, some don’t give up that easily.
On gender equality, the show’s women are no damsels in distress who need the help of a man to move forward. Rebecca, after losing her spouse, is worried about raising three growing children all on her own. While she struggles to come to terms with his death, Rebecca is one tough cookie. She fights it all, fights back the tears, and soldiers on, while reminding her two sons that they needn’t worry about being the ‘man in the house’.
Dan Fogelman, the creator of the show, has worked as a screenwriter for several popular films including Tangled, Crazy Stupid Love, and lighthearted but real The Guilt Trip. Playing around a similar familial theme found in his other works, This Is Us is more than just a story that connects well with viewers or relates to those who wish they had a father like Jack. The acting, the details, every little object or person in focus contributes heavily to drive the story of the Pearsons forward.
Ultimately, if one had to borrow from Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham tagline, it’s all about loving (and understanding) your parents, storming through the dysfunctionality and baggage each family comes with.
This Is Us is available on Amazon Prime (season 1) and Hotstar.