Caution, many spoilers ahead.
If you haven’t seen NBC’s smash hit show This Is Us, it’s likely that you’ve at least heard about it (and equally likely that the person who told you about it cried a little during the explanation). The emotionally-charged drama has captivated viewers nationwide, many of whom have reverted to the old-fashioned, pre-“binge-watching” habit of anticipating a new episode each week. America has fallen in love with This Is Us.
The show follows Jack Pearson, his wife, Rebecca, and their kids: Kevin, Kate, and adoptee Randall. In each episode, viewers see the beginnings of the Pearson family, learning about Jack and Rebecca’s early marriage and the kids’ childhoods. Simultaneously, viewers discover how the kids are handling life as young adults and what has happened to them and their parents 36 years after their births. The show has many strengths, but this subtle time-hopping element is one of its most charming features.
Last September’s pilot opened with the impending birth of the Pearsons’ triplets—an event that, I imagine, was part novelty, part nostalgia for many audience members. I doubt many viewers gave birth to triplets themselves in 1980, but those details feel irrelevant; if babies represent anything, it’s hope, and tripling the number of infants only raises the stakes of potential.
As Jack declares just before his babies are delivered, “I’m going to need everyone… to believe me when I say that only good things are going to happen today.” Whether or not you’ve brought a baby (or two, or three) into this world, there is a desperate resolve in his voice that rings true for all of us—for “only good things to happen” is, of course, what we all want, especially when confronted with the very real possibility that only terrible things could happen. The problem is, sometimes they do.
And things do go wrong for the Pearsons. Only two of the triplets survive into infancy. The third, Kyle, is lost—and while faithful fans of the show have already mentally interrupted me with reminders of the ultimate good that results from Kyle’s death, it’s important, if not necessary, to pause here. Kyle’s death is tragic; it is a lost life, and it forces a young couple into grief on a day that was expected to bring them only joy.
Kyle’s death also introduces a number of tensions that turn into vices for the characters—defects we discover in subsequent episodes. Kevin’s jealousy, Rebecca’s secrecy and dishonesty, Randall’s lost biological family and confusion about his identity—all of this pain begins with Kyle’s death. There are also problems that aren’t directly connected to the loss of the baby, but rather seem to materialize without direct causation: Jack’s alcoholism, Randall’s anxiety, Kate’s gluttony. Darkness, it would seem, creates more and more darkness.
This Is Us flirts with melodrama at times, but the show understands what it means to be fallen, to live in world in which horrible things are both intended and incidental. No characters are spared from suffering, and all of them carry the weight of their worst decisions. For instance, when Randall confronts Rebecca about the fact that she had contact with his biological father, her face twists under the agony of her own regret, and she desperately reaches out to her son for a reprieve, aching to give up the ghost that has haunted her for his entire life. Kevin and Randall, meanwhile, attempt to build a cordial sibling relationship, but their old rivalries immediately flare up. They find themselves arguing like children on the sidewalks of New York, and ultimately wrestling each other to the ground as onlookers film the spectacle. Jack, Kate, and Randall’s birth father, William, with varied success, fight their own monsters of addiction. There is no whitewashing of sins in This Is Us—evil comes with a vengeance, haunting every ordinary person.