This Is Us
“This Is Us makes a concerted effort to be inclusive, even though it’s painfully obvious that the writers are not always coming from a place of lived experience.”
Title: This Is Us
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Dan Fogelman 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Dan Fogelman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (7 eps), Isaac Aptaker 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Elizabeth Berger 👩🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), and various (5 ♀, 3 ♂, 2 POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Sappy cheesy weepy feelings hugging family strife love
If you can get behind the above, then this is a well-made family drama perfectly suited for the age of collectively burying our heads in the sand with either escapist nostalgia or futuristic, sci-fi dystopias.
This Is Us falls firmly in the former category. Wenlai Ma sums it up perfectly for news.com.au: “It’s sort of like a hug—warm and comfortable—but always bordering on being too much.”
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women have an equal number of storylines as men. But none of the storylines are progressive.
The matriarch, Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore), has lowercase-D “dreams” of being a singer. But her pursuit of a career is kneecapped by her obstacles of finding a man, marrying the man, having children, miscarrying, gaining an adoptive child, and navigating family life, etc. While there is nothing wrong with her decision to put family first, the depiction of a stay-at-home mother struggling with suburban ennui and wanting to pursue a pipe dream is hardly groundbreaking.
Another female family member, Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz), also gets a decent share of screentime. But her entire characterization is built upon her struggle with obesity. As above, this is a perfectly laudable issue to explore. But the depiction of a woman struggling with body image (while her equally overweight boyfriend is at peace with his own looks) is a little too gendered, reinforcing the toxic link between the value of a woman and her appearances even as they loudly denounce said links. Show, not tell, right?
Meanwhile, other female roles can be found in relation to Kate’s twin brother, the generically attractive Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley). Kevin uses women to figure out what he wants in life, dating and discarding them like a game of Go Fish. Even his own twin sister is used as a crutch and she finds herself struggling to put herself in front of his ego and insecurities.
On the plus side, the wife of Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is great. Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) is intelligent, measured, loving, and one of the more well-rounded characters on the show who doesn't fit into a trope. She provides steady support to Randall but also has needs of her own.
A genuine sense of affection for the women of This Is Us runs undercurrent, which gives this score a bump. However, their lives and issues are decidedly trodden territory.
This Is Us skips over the numbers game and instead delves deep into the lives of two black characters— adopted son Randall Pearson and his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones).
Sterling K. Brown is by far my favorite part of This Is Us. He grounds the entire series in modernity, when every other aspect threatens to break off and get sucked back into the 1970s where many of its scenes take place. It’s interesting to watch Randall grow up as a black kid in an overwhelmingly white school (and family), displaying themes that have something new to say. What does an adoptive family look like? How does Randall navigate his dual identity? Who does he look up to, and what kinds of friends does he make? Randall’s discovery of his biological father and the painful, yet rewarding re-integration of William into Randall’s own family stays delicate and respectful from start to finish. My favorite episode of the season, “Memphis” (S01E16) revolves around their relationship and it was one of the few instances where I cried without feeling like the material didn’t warrant it. (I cry basically anytime I see tears onscreen, regardless of how I actually feel. And there are a lot of tears in This Is Us 😂)
However, Randall’s characterization stems largely from his being black. And while his struggle with anxiety feels contemporary and relevant, the anxiety itself comes from his insecurity about belonging among the Pearsons (and overcompensating for that by being a high achiever). These are all fine threads, but at some point I want to see Randall grow out of this storyline and simply be characterized by his dad jokes, his search for a new job, and perhaps some character development around his daughters instead of always going back to the Pearsons, the Pearsons, the Pearsons. (Because honestly the rest of them kinda suck and are infinitely less fun to watch.) Also, it wouldn’t hurt to toss in another POC, even in a minor role. Because other than Randall’s family, and the underdeveloped Miguel (John Huertas), the world of This Is Us is white as the tundra, stretching out for miles in every direction.
During the first season, Randall’s father, William, falls into a healthy, companionable romance with another man. This understated way of introducing a bisexual character—who is a POC senior fighting cancer, to boot—is decidedly fresh. The relationship doesn’t see a lot of screen time, but it’s depicted wonderfully if in an extremely sanitized fashion (they barely touch).
Bonus for Body Image: +0.5
Chrissy Metz is nominated for an Emmy for her role as a loving, loyal, but intensely insecure woman struggling with her weight. While I do mention its gendered nature above, it’s still nonetheless empowering to see someone who doesn’t fit a size 4 dress get a ton of scenes on a mainstream show. Her boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan) is overweight as well and has a slightly more multi-faceted character, which is welcome.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.94/5
Sappy AF but hey, sometimes that’s what you need to get through dark times. This Is Us makes a concerted effort to be inclusive, even though it’s painfully obvious that the writers are not always coming from a place of lived experience, evident in painstaking scripts that never quite flow naturally. The storylines feel like well-researched but blunt weapons that hit you over the head with Weight Issues! Adopted Child issues! Marriage issues!
Still, if this is the kind of show that reaches outside my liberal bubble and talks to the rest of the country, then I’m happy it’s This Is Us.