On the hit new NBC series “This is Us,” one of the star characters talked a reluctant colleague into spending the holidays with his family. Kevin, a washed-up sitcom actor seeking a comeback on the stage, tells the woman about his adopted black brother, about his obese twin sister who is trying to lose weight and maintain a relationship with another food addict, and about his mother who is married to his dead father’s best friend. He asked, “Don’t you want to see that up close?”
Turns out she did, and we do, too. The series, which traces and intertwines the lives of these three siblings with flashbacks to various periods in their childhoods and in the marriage of their parents, is a hit.
“This is Us” is by far the highest-performing new show of the year, dominating the ratings and the adult 18-40 demographic. Adweek reported that the show has the most social media activity of any new show, broadcast network or cable. Why does this show seem to have a drawing power other family dramas haven’t?
Part of the success might be, of course, the brilliantly crisp writing and the acting range — especially that of Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, the show’s mom and dad. But writing and acting excellence don’t exactly explain television success in an era of real housewives and house-flipping reality shows. Nor does the spectacle Kevin alluded to at Thanksgiving explain it.
After all, how odd is this family compared to what else is on television — teenage werewolves fighting ghost riders, and an accidental president after everyone in the White House and Congress is killed in a terrorist attack?
The secret to “This is Us” is less about ogling some other, strange, dysfunctional family as it is about seeing in it our own.
This is where the time-hopping of the program is essential to its emotional power. Some of the adults in the show, like workaholic family man Randall, seem to have most things together, while others — like sister Kate scarfing down powdered doughnuts in her car at the gas station or brother Kevin losing his job after melting down on his brain dead sitcom — do not.
At the same time, though, we see them as children, and we see there’s not all that much distance between the two. We see a glimpse of the way the decisions made in private of a young couple who never planned to be parents reverberate through the years in the lives of their offspring.
This rings true because we all tend to see our lives as narrative and, like the characters in this series, the narrative is often murkier than we would like. Some of us had relatively idyllic childhoods. Some of us grew up in the specter of violence or addiction or abuse or some other awful reality. Some of us grew up wondering, as we do as we see some of the secrets of the backstories of this series unfold, whether the family figures of our past are heroes or villains or a mixture of the two.
The switching back and forth between the 1980s and 2016 reminds us that the narrative of our lives is not a straight line. Our childhoods aren’t just “back there,” but they intrude on our lives now, sometimes in picking at old scars and sometimes in reminding us of the small mercies that have brought us safe thus far.
We wouldn’t be who we are if not for the stories that have made us — stories we love, stories we hate, and sometimes stories we long to peer into but leave us in mystery.
In the most recent episode, Randall — an African American man adopted as a baby into this white family — faces an identity crisis. He is, after all, part of the family, but his life as a black man makes him different from them, as does the fact that he knows he is there to “replace” a triplet who died at birth.
More than that, he finds his birth father and learns that his mother knew all along this man’s name and whereabouts. Seething with anger at this betrayal, he trips out on some accidentally ingested mushrooms and sees his dead adoptive father.
After letting him vent his rage, his father takes him by the face and says, “You are not a choice, Randall. You’re a fact.” In one moment, the father says the words every child longs to hear, “You are my beloved child and with you I am well pleased.” At the same time, he seems to say, “Your life is hard, but nothing is accidental; behind all of this there is a plot.”
We are left wondering, of course, in what way this interaction is real. Is the father just a mushroom-induced creature of the son’s imagination? Or is this something more, a sign? Randall doesn’t know, and neither do we. Maybe we find ourselves brushing away tears because we so often wonder in our own lives about whether to stew in our regrets and our missed opportunities or whether to see, behind all the mess, a sign of grace.
“This is Us” is a pro-family show. The family is presented as a positive force for good. But this good is grounded in complexity, and even in forgiveness.
We see the plot behind the plot, but the characters don’t. They learn to show mercy when they realize how much they don’t — and can’t — understand, even about themselves. Maybe we love “This is Us” because this, in fact, is us.