How The Realism Of 'This Is Us' Became The Escapism From Our Surreal New World

"This Is Us" invites us to explore the issues that have been bluntly sidestepped by the circus of Trump’s absurdist ascendency.
03/12/2017 03:00 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2017

When I first heard about “This Is Us,” I had my cynical doubts. There was something in the promos about shared birthdays and soul connections and the meaning of everything sappy and Mandy Moore. Oh yeah, and it was a drama on NBC so, please, mother of Mary Tyler Moore, give me a break. Network shows were over so long ago. Besides, I was gearing up for “Homeland” and my new fave, “The Man in the High Castle.”

Fast-forward to February when I’ve binged everything from “Good Girls Revolt” to “Goliath” to “How to Get Away With Murder”—technically a network show but they only do half the normal amount of episodes and get away with murderous non-censorship. I needed something new to watch and decided I’d give the first episode a try.

I fell in love with the Pearson clan by the time the closing credits hit and leaped through the episodes as fast as the show leaps through decades. The characters struggle through issues all of us are familiar with to some extent: obesity, alcoholism and addiction, breakdowns, same-sex relationships, racism, old age, financial hardships and, the biggie, death. It also moves with a swift back and forth of timelines that would be confusing if they weren’t so deftly handled and intricately woven together. Kudos to the writers.

But I realized something else wonderful as I watched Kate hem and haw over desserts and Toby, and Randall find his real dad while wife Beth got the show’s best zingers, and Kevin’s triceps’ triceps give Hollywood the finger—Manny, he’s a looker!—and Jack and Rebecca go through the struggles of raising kids without the help of cellphones: What hit me in my TV epiphany is that the series, which first aired on Sept. 20, 2016, is a show without Trump!

In a few short months it’s become a sentimental flashback to a more innocent time. (”Happy Days” took 20 years to remind us how fun drive-ins and duck-tails were.) Since our new world has been dipped into Alice’s looking glass, realism has become the new escapism.

“This Is Us” avoids outward politics altogether and focuses on family dynamics. It was developed when Obama was still president and moral inventory, like the ever-changing world we live in, took center stage. Like this year’s other new shows, I imagine the creative team behind “This Is Us” assumed Hillary Clinton would become president and the country outside Randall’s beautiful New Jersey home wouldn’t be threatened by repression of free speech, a spike in hate crimes, an un-American Muslim ban, the stripping away of the Affordable Care Act and environmental protections and competent cabinet members, and the daily hell of a tweeting lunatic we have to pay attention to behind the curtain. “This Is Us” is like “The Wizard of Oz” in that respect, and we all want to go home.

Other TV shows have become depressing for the sheer fact that they do cover Washington, even if the mirror is one of a well-meaning, if imperfect, government. “Homeland’s” having a terrific season with classic spy-thriller plots, yet every time I watch the new (female) president-elect, I can’t help but think how level-headed and realistic she seems in comparison to our real-fake leader. “Scandal’s” as outrageously fantastical as ever (a show where we judge the leads’ likability on how few high crimes they’ve committed), but Mellie Grant looks downright presidential compared to 45. Even “Designated Survivor,” a show that imagines a post-apocalyptic Washington and terror plots galore, winds up making me sad we don’t have someone in charge as level-headed as Tom Kirkman—heck, at this point I’d take Kiefer Sutherland.

As for “The Man in the High Castle,” in one year it’s gone from sci-fi escapism to future shock. Are we to find out on the next season of “This Is Us” that New Jersey is now New St. Petersburg?

“This Is Us” invites us to explore the issues that have been bluntly sidestepped by the circus of Trump’s absurdist ascendency. We can’t ignore him in conversations, on social media, or every time we have nightmares about the rise of American fascism. Nor should we. But once a week we can watch real actors play real people who work on real problems in a dignified way that makes us proud to be American citizens.

Tuesday night is the season finale, and I’m on the edge of my seat wondering how things are gonna tie up. When I sit down to watch, I’ll turn off the noise of truth-impaired advisors and white supremacists in leadership positions and the marketing of the White House and a press secretary who lies so often his nose needs its own zip code and the man who would be king.

For an hour I’ll indulge in something distant and beautiful and full of the promise that was taken away in the middle of the night like a soul mate who took his last breath. I’ll indulge in US.

Follow David Toussaint on Twitter and Facebook.

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