Foreword: Wiki sums up what the premise of This Is Us (more details here):
The series follows siblings Kate, Kevin and Randall as their lives intertwine. Kate and Kevin were originally part of a triplet pregnancy, conceived in the bathroom of Froggy’s, a bar, during Super Bowl XIV. However, their biological brother was stillborn. While their due date was October 12, 1980, they were born six weeks early on August 31. Their parents, Jack and Rebecca, intent on bringing home three babies, decide to adopt another newborn (Randall), a black child who was born on the same day and brought to the same hospital after his biological father abandoned him at a fire station.
Episodes weave through the stories of the past and present of the characters, with most scenes taking place in 1980, 1989–1990, and the present day (2016–2017). Flashback scenes take place in Pittsburgh, while current scenes are typically split between Los Angeles, New Jersey, and New York City.
I tend to be drawn to movies, television shows and books that keep me thinking even after the story ends. I am drawn in because they leave me wanting to understand the characters or think about how I may be similar (or not) to them. They force me to put my own judgments to the side and really look through the lens of others. Given that, it is no wonder that I have been hooked on the television show, This Is Us, from the first few minutes into the first episode. I love how every character in the show could have its own episode where you almost forget there are other kids or parents involved. It is because they all have their own identities, their own struggles. The show has so many basic (but complex) and simple (yet powerful) messages that resonate.
As a 1970’s baby, my generation was raised to pick colleges, majors and jobs that would provide money and stability. I wanted to major in writing but I remember being advised against that. After all, what could I do with a risky and not lucrative major like that? I settled on minoring in it and majoring in Child Development and Child Care, which might I add I never pursued professionally. And here I am, years later, working for the man but often wondering what life would be like had I followed my passion, my talent. Now as we are well into the 21st century, that kind of thinking has changed. We are realizing that life is short, life can be stressful and life is definitely not meant to be indebted to jobs we do not love. This is why so many people have career changes and the norm of working for the same company for 30 plus years is a dying ideal.
When it comes to This Is Us, we see so much of this theme play out. Jack, the show’s family patriarch, did take the path of stability and money to work for his friend, Miguel, abandons his own dream of starting his own business. Not that I can blame him (after all he had 3 kids and a wife who depended on him). But that was in the 80’s. Look at his son, Kevin: an LA actor, age 36 in our modern world. Sure we can mock him for having high class problems where he walked out on his demoralizing, unfulfilling acting gig as The Manny and decided to pursue a career as a serious stage actor. While his circumstance may not be completely relatable, his reasons and emotions are. Kevin struggles with not wanting to feel like a sellout (Sound familiar? How many of us feel like we have sold our souls to big corporations for a cushy pay check, a 401k and a slew of vacation days?) He also struggles with confidence issues, which is crazy when you look at him. I mean the man is incredibly, ahem, HOT and he exudes ego. Yet, he questions his abilities and if he will even be taken seriously in his new career venture. He is taking a major leap of faith, which to his credit, is something that I dare say most of us shy away from.
While we are on the topic of Kevin, this brings me to the next important theme and message of this show. He seems like a guy who has it all right? Good lucks, money, charisma, no shortage of women and amazing biceps. Same as his brother, Randall, who has the picture perfect family, career and house. He’s got a smart, savvy, beautiful wife and two adorable, charming, endearing daughters who live in an upper class NJ suburb. On the surface, like Kevin, we would believe he has it all.
These characters remind me of also growing up in the 80’s and into the 90’s, coincidentally in a middle-upper class NJ suburb. We judge people often by how things look on the outside: well landscaped front lawns, fancy cars, designer clothes. We assume their biggest problems in life are which Ivy League college to go to or which European country should be their next vacation destination. We assume people in these situations have everything handed to them, that they do not have to work for any of it. It just is not true. Behind closed doors, there are harrowing stories of abuse, eating disorders and financial ruins. Randall may have the perfect job, the perfect house and the perfect family with his wife and two daughters, but that does not mean that he is immune from real problems. He has struggled with finding his biological identify, of growing up an African American child in a predominantly white populated school. He is a perfectionist to a fault. I actually admire a bit that his character struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. It shows that 1) he is human and 2) even someone as tough as nails as he is has limits.
I am a strong believer that timing is everything. We see implied scenarios of this throughout the show. Randall had searched for his biological father and when he finally did find him, he discovered that he had only months to live. This seems like a horrible twist of fate but in reality, Randall met him when he really needed him the most and was open to learning what William had to instill in him. William taught him in a short time to let loose, not always be so rigid. He taught him that not every risk in life can be mitigated, and you certainly cannot always avoid taking them. William reminds us that sometimes we need to venture to the unconventional.
William’s character is also another reminder of nothing is ever as it seems on the surface. We may have judged William from abandoning his newborn son or for fighting his demon, drugs. It would be easy to dismiss him and label him as someone not worth knowing. Yet as his core, William I a wonderful, strong man who experienced his own hardships. He did what he thought was best at that moment, and not without regrets. I like to think that had Randall met William as a 9 year old or as a 16 year old or even as a 30 year old, that his story line would have been drastically different and maybe not for the best.
Like her brothers, Kate has her own demons. She struggles with insecurities and weight issues. While she is on the extreme end of the spectrum of this, it is something that is so prominent in many of us. I am by no means overweight, but I completely understand what it is like to be consumed with body image issues. Many of us do. Have you ever counted the number of decisions you make a day that tie to weight or body image? Think about it. On any given day, I may choose to wear my beloved LuLaRoe leggings over jeans because I feel a tad bit pudgy. I may refrain from eating that taunting bagel at a work breakfast in fear that the carbs will go straight to my thighs. The amount of time I spend a day willing myself to go back to CrossFit for a second workout that day is ridiculous. Yes it is neurotic, but it is a reality that I know I am not alone in. So imagine someone like Kate, who has real health threats of being overweight (much like her fiancé who had an unexpected heart attack). Imagine the struggle of making choices every minute of the day to break habits and a lifestyle that has been with you for over 30 years. Imagine constantly comparing yourself to others (Kate does this with her beautiful, thin mother and even her fiancé’s ex-wife). This is an exhausting and stressful way to live and takes a toll on us just as much emotionally as it does physically.
One of reasons I feel America has fallen in love with This Is Us is that we feel connected to the characters, even those that perhaps we had different struggles than. It reminds us of allbeit obvious reality that at the end of the day, all of us have one thing in common no matter what our circumstance is: We are human. We all have limits to what we can take on without cracking. It is totally normal yet people feel shame when they are in a situation where they just do not feel like they can get through it independently. It is fascinating to follow the lives of 3 siblings who grew up with the same family, the same environment, the same opportunities yet they all evolved into 3 very different adults. It reminds us that we all have our own identities, our own complexities, our own struggles and our own triumphs.