It is not often that my opinion of a show switches from scene to scene, but This Is Us manages to make me rethink everything I thought I knew about the characters and their situations on an episode to episode basis. This, although sometimes confusing, is ultimately a positive attribute to the show. The characters are continuously evolving, reverting, and evolving again which is exactly how character development is supposed to happen. Characters are not meant to be stagnant. People are not meant to be stagnant. This is what sets This Is Us apart from most shows. It is unapologetically cynical while simultaneously remaining light-hearted and reflects the sincerity of the human condition. It’s incredibly refreshing to see on television in comparison to the unrealistic and often overly dramatic plots of shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Shameless. Both these shows are entertaining, yes. But the popularity of these shows often comes from the shock value of the ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in. For what it is, it works. With that being said, I often find myself watching these shows thinking “how many things can go wrong so drastically in one episode?”, and it ultimately takes away from the entertainment. Moreover, there comes a point when the shock value ceases to be shocking. There are only so many times I can see a surgeon from the same hospital die in a horrific accident before I grow tired of the idea. Likewise, there are only so many times I can watch a character screw up their lives in the same exact way repeatedly without becoming bored and irritated (ahem, Fiona). Not only are the characters stagnant, so is the overall plot.
For Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us, the relatively normal situations that the characters find themselves in are often relatable and just shocking enough to keep the audience interested without being overly repetitive and cheesy. There is also a large amount of representation. That is, not all the characters are thin, white, and heterosexual. The show has tackled issues of race, sexuality, obesity, drug addiction, alcoholism, and severe illness. So, you know, normal things that most people deal with. The representation that This Is Us provides is not only welcome, but necessary. Representation matters, and it is fantastic to see so many kinds of inclusion in the show. However, although these issues and representations are being addressed, This Is Us writers are erring on the side of caution. The ways in which the characters and their issues are being addressed is far too passive and comfortable. Just when it seems like the show is about to accurately address an incredibly important social issue with gut wrenching honesty, the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief as the characters sidestep the issue.
For example, one of the most prevalent subplots involve Randall’s identity struggles due to him being the only black person in a family of white people. Understandably, finding his birth father later in life is an emotionally filled journey. We then learn that Rebecca (Randall’s adoptive mom) had always known about her son’s birth father and made the decision to keep him away from her son even though she knew Randall was struggling immensely with his identity because she was afraid that she would lose her son to his biological parent. In my opinion, the reasoning she gives seems far too convenient. Is there a racial component to Rebecca’s decision? The subtext indicates so, but the way in which the show is written makes it so Rebecca couldn’t possibly think this way because she is oh so maternal and was just doing her best. The argument that she just loves her son too much to risk losing him is fair, and it is believable. But, again, it is far too convenient. Now Rebecca can remain pure in the minds of the audience without thinking what the subtext suggests: a white woman afraid to expose her child to a recently sober black man living in poor conditions. This too would have been realistic, and this too would have been accepted by the audience. So why was this not addressed? Perhaps to avoid the uncomfortability of directly involving racism to a situation where race is indeed a factor. This way the shows can remain inclusive and lightly progressive while still pandering to the comforts of the audience. It’s fine, but it isn’t good enough. Not anymore.
This issue side-stepping extends to other social issues in the show as well including Kate’s obvious body image issues and eating disorder. Her character has so much potential that is not being met. Instead, the body defines her. While the show has done a decent job in addressing the psychological issues that come from body image and eating disorders, the show has yet to progress from there. We get it, now do something with it. In the few brief moments where Kate’s character has been genuine and free from the restraints of her eating disorder, she has been my favourite character. Contrary to popular belief, obese people do have lives outside of food. They have jobs, interests, passions, and hobbies. They even have relationships! Granted, there is a cute subplot between Kate and her boyfriend. However, the relationship that they have is also built around food. Every fight they have, almost every conversation they have, is about food. They even met in an overweight support group. I am not downplaying the significance that food has in her life, nor am I discrediting the amount of control food has in the lives of those with eating disorders. What I am saying is that out of all the characters on the show, Kate seems to be the most stagnant. As I discussed before, I hate stagnant television.
The series This Is Us has checked most of the boxes when it comes to compelling television, and indeed has checked most of the boxes pertaining to inclusion. People of colour? Check. LGBTQ+? Check. Differing body types? Check. A variety of economic status? Check. It’s a good start, even a noble attempt, but just checking the boxes isn’t good enough. The show has been raw, real, and places the audience on a roller coaster of emotions. But what it has not done yet is challenge the status quo in a way that offers thought provoking discussion. It’s too comfortable, and the time has come for audiences to be uncomfortable with the reality that these characters are living in, as well as the realities that we as the audience are living in.