When thirtysomething was on TV in 1987, I was 13 years old and called it one of my favorite shows. Maybe a bit age inappropriate; perhaps I should have stuck with the more candy-coated Love Boat, for its false fairytale, “wrap it up with a bow” endings or Dynasty for its hyper unrealistic familial depictions. (Although years later my father married someone 30 years his junior and gave me a half brother 30 years my junior, I now realize the soap opera is, in fact, based on real life.)
I spent my high school years typically convinced I was the only teenager who didn’t belong, with a fucked up “home life.” No, my parents didn’t beat me, but I watched life beat the shit out of them - and consequently - out of our family. There weren’t shows on TV showing alcoholic mothers and fathers who cheated. I loved thirtysomething because it showed death and infidelity and accurately portrayed how hard it is to be a grown up because life can give you quite a kick in the pants - often when you’re down.
From it’s gripping, pilot, This is Us has put a spell on me. Its emotional vulnerability has tapped into mine, like a tree for sap, and every week the show’s layered portrayal of humanity, friendship, pain, birth, death, LIVING drains me of tears, slowly and thoroughly. This is Us is for all of us. It is all of us.
This is Us, our generation’s thirtysomething, accurately and vividly portrays realistic characters enduring life angst, laden with complicated back stories, tragedies, regrets and secrets. Always secrets. That’s the thing about families: they’re filled with flaws, yet you can never fully break free from them because their roots are entangled with ours.
This is a show which gets humanity. It showed the human condition and everyone is in the “I am a Human Club.” Everyone can understand and relate to the plights of being alive. We’re bystanders behind screens, watching these characters reflect on heavy choices and diversions and we are able to see their consequences. Characters make mistakes, they analyze, they grow, they regress, they learn, they start over again.
The thing about This is Us that sticks with you and slowly permeates into your heart, is how these fictional characters mirror people we know in our actual lives. We all know a version of those characters and the reason they’re so real and approachable is because we see ourselves up there. We can connect to the concepts of marriage, parenthood, sibling drama, and insecurities about our appearances or our careers. We’re not alone in our struggles with self-analysis and perpetual review in the rear view mirror, reliving mistakes from our past, fearful of making new ones in the future.
Through its time-jumping storytelling style, the characters’ tales unravel weekly, casting a wider spotlight on backstories. We are climbing harder and harder in love with the characters each week as they become part of our [imaginary] extended family; as their sorrow becomes ours, we invest. We predict the plot; we try to prepare. Either way, we know we’re in for a sob fest and we eagerly await it.
As a show, it creeps under your skin, and like electric pulses continues to reverberate days later, as you review scenes and lines and start to well up. After the episode, “Memphis,” where one of the lead characters dies, I wrote down a page of notes. As the character uttered his final words, it was the profound moment I wish I had when I recently lost my grandmother:
“I haven’t had a happy life; bad breaks, bad choices. A life of almost and could haves. Some would call it sad, but I don’t. Because the two best things in my life were the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end that’s a pretty good thing to be able to say I think.”
This is Us is both real and fantasy all at once. The characters say things you wish you heard from your husband, brother, father or else maybe they’re forcing you to see how they already do. Its stories reflect our own and make us examine our relationships, our careers, our motives. It forces us to evaluate if we are living our days to our maximum potential.