This stark explanation of the characters’ struggles may make it seem like This Is Us is a bit of a downer. But the audience’s response to the show would suggest that quite the opposite is true: Viewers report feeling surprised, uplifted, and inspired by the story. How? What good can come from so much tragedy?
One answer may be that This Is Us happened upon a simple, important truth about redemption: It often takes time. Viewers are given the gift of time compression, of watching a narrative arc resolve itself in two different decades. We learn that Rebecca lies not out of carelessness or malice, but out of fear that the truth will rob her of her child for a second time. Randall works tirelessly and flawlessly because he has created a habit out of earning acceptance from an unforgiving world. Kevin fails his romantic interests because he is in love with the one woman who won’t love him back. These contexts soften us toward these characters. Time creates empathy and understanding, and, at times, fosters love.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul famously wrote about putting away childish things, about childish reasoning and adult understanding. This truth is illustrated powerfully in the narrative arc of This Is Us. The younger version of this family cannot be faulted for their youthful inexperience—but they should grow beyond that. The burdens these characters carry lead them to harbor tremendous vices—but at some point, the burdens have to be laid down.
Viewers are compelled to watch these characters not because they struggle, but because we want to see them overcome their difficulties. We want a happy ending to Randall’s adoption. We want Kate to lose the weight. We want Rebecca to tell the truth, for Kevin to love Randall like they are brothers, for Randall to show grace to his mother and himself. Though these victories may come slowly, in sentences and moments and small, small gestures, they are all valuable for being lights that permeate the darkness, tiny acts of rebellion against evil. The characters grow away from their reactionary transgressions. They become stronger, wiser, and more patient.
As audience members, meanwhile, we are afforded a gift that the Pearsons do not have: We can see the whole story of their lives in a handful of 40-minute episodes. We may be quick to ascribe the show’s unified storytelling to the convenient magic of television, but the truth is that our lives, too, can have incredible narrative direction. We only see our stories in minutes and hours, but as Christians, we can be certain that there is divine orchestration connecting each of our days to one another. We see, as Paul writes, through a glass darkly, but we have been promised that we will see face to face.
As he nears death, Randall’s father, William, is close to that kind of complete sight. As he reflects on his life, he is asked what it feels like to be dying. William responds, “It feels…like all these beautiful pieces of life are flying around me and I’m trying to catch them. When my granddaughter falls asleep in my lap, I try to catch the feeling of her breathing against me. When I make my son laugh, I try to catch the sound of him laughing—how it rolls up from his chest. … Catch the moments of your life.”