The Turbulence of Family Love in ‘This Is Us’

NBC drama "This Is Us" does what it does well, like a storied hole-in-the-wall diner that serves up the most delicious comfort food.

click to enlarge Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Sterling K. Brown as Randall in "This is Us" - RON BATZDORFF/NBC
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Sterling K. Brown as Randall in "This is Us"

At one point in television history, This Is Us would easily be the best drama. With the multiple, intersecting timelines and the perfectly complicated Pearson family — Jack, Rebecca and their three children, Kevin, Kate and Randall — shown in all stages of life, the NBC show could easily stand up against an ER or Picket Fences. But today, the competition is fierce, and a family-oriented sob-fest like This Is Us is child’s play when you’re waiting for the long-awaited third season of Westworld (just one month away!).

Sure, This Is Us has gotten its share of awards and attention from critics — particularly for its acting. Sterling K. Brown, who plays adult Randall, is phenomenal season after season, and the series’ casting is superb. But viewers ask a lot from their TV shows these days. We crave innovative, original storytelling and shows that make a statement. This Is Us just does it in a quieter, more accessible way.

Midway through its fourth season, the family melodramedy (is that a word?) has failed to disappoint yet. The show is taking its sweet time unveiling layers of its characters, but they continue to develop. A recent “Big Three trilogy,” following each of the Pearson siblings during the same week with loads of illuminating flashbacks, revealed so much about the family we know (or thought we knew) and love.

We’re finally seeing some cracks in the almost mythical relationship between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Nothing sinister is revealed about their love story or parenting, just humanizing flaws that ground them both. Jack overwhelmed with three toddlers, begging Randall to be the easy one; Rebecca missing Kevin’s (Justin Hartley) soap opera debut as a young actor. The Pearsons: They’re just like us!

This Is Us can teeter into after-school special territory. Things always ultimately shake out just fine for the Pearsons. At one point this season, Kevin makes the ridiculous assertion that he’ll be married with a kid by the time he’s 40 — less than a year away. A flash-forward vaguely confirms his prediction, and fans are left hunting for clues as to who this mystery woman could be.

It’s a bit of a gimmick creator Dan Fogelman and the other writers use to pull viewers in — give us a taste of what’s to come only to reel it way back for the plot to slowly unfurl. But it is a whole lot of fun, and who would think a family dramedy could incite so many theories on Reddit?

Compared to other current massive-scale epics, it’s hard to rank This Is Us alongside arguably higher-brow family dramas like Succession or Watchmen. But This Is Us, like its beloved predecessors Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, does what it does well, like a storied hole-in-the-wall diner that serves up the most delicious comfort food.

As for the Big Three and Company? Randall is poised for a serious mental breakdown; Kevin may be rushing into yet another relationship trying to capture the love his parents had; and Kate (Chrissy Metz) is isolated as a mother of a premature baby born nearly blind as husband Toby (Chris Sullivan) drifts in more ways than one. We know Rebecca is dealing with health issues, while Jack’s estranged brother Nicky (Griffin Dunne) has rejoined the Pearson clan.

There are still two major flash-forwards we’ve seen that are yet to be resolved. The first, at least 10 years in the future, shows the family gathering around Rebecca for her final moments. This is likely the events of the series finale, which showrunners have teased will air after the sixth season. The other glimpse we’ve seen is to the Big Three’s 40th birthday, where Rebecca’s condition has seemed to worsen and Kevin and Randall are on the outs. Clearly the show is not shying away from exposing some of the sad truths about relationships, because family is so much more than just the smiling faces around a dinner table.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern

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