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***This article contains minor spoilers for the pilot episode of NBC’s This Is Us***
Birthdays. Frustration. Houseguests. Laughter. Annoyance. A glass of wine. Romance. Career changes. Body image. Sorrow. Trying again.
Feels like family, doesn’t it?
Through a series of vignettes, NBC’s new drama This Is Us conjures up those family feelings throughout its pilot episode. Darkest nights, brightest hopes, histories exposed, and futures uncertain all weave themselves together as the host of characters live out experiences deeply human, painfully personal.
William meets his biological father for the first time.
Jack and Rebecca welcome newborn triplets.
Kevin walks away from his job.
Kate goes to war with her weight.
[pullquote align = right]This Is Us shows us what life looks like for those living in the shadows desperately seeking to find light.[/pullquote]The wide range of emotional responses to these various incidents span the spectrum of feelings–from deep pain and sadness to laugh-out-loud hilarity to frustration that becomes anger. It’s a truckload of emotion for one episode, especially a pilot. The show calls for an engaged viewer, one who is willing to shift from laughter to tears and back to laughter again, who desires to walk hand in hand with the characters as they stumble through their answers to the question Kate asks early in the show: “How the hell did I get here?”
Though Kate is the one to ask the question, each character’s experiences ask it as well. The characters each face loss, and the viewer can see that look in their eyes, the one that says, “If things had just gone differently, I wouldn’t be standing in this mess.” The viewer knows that look because she’s seen it in the eyes of someone she loves. More likely, she knows that look because she’s given it herself.
The real strength of This Is Us, though, is not merely that it asks that question that we’ve all asked; it’s what the show does with the feelings that swirl around us as we ask it. The jewel in the pilot episode’s crown is how the show displays the human experience on those days when we ask how we got here: the incredulous gratitude and joy at seeing the office the day our new job starts, the face of our spouse on our wedding day, the tiny features of our just born baby. The show is equally adept at peeling back the layers on the common experience of asking how we got here on days filled with desperation: the gut-wrenching wondering we do in the middle of the night when the loved one dies, when the heart breaks and the dream shatters.
How did I get here?
The show manages, in spite of the range and weight of emotion, to offer nuance: emotions are not elevated above action or reason or personal responsibility, nor are they ignored or pushed aside. Rather, they find what seems to be a rightful place in the lives of people seeking to make sense of the world. Emotions are not glorified, but they are dignified. They are depicted as a valuable, but not ultimate, part of the whole person, as shown by characters who allow themselves and one another to feel deeply but keep moving forward even when pain is searing.
When Kate falls off of her scale and has to call her twin brother, William, for help, he sits on the bathroom floor with her. It’s their thirty-sixth birthday. This is when she asks the question, when she wonders how she got here. She mourns dreams lost and personal choices made; she resolves to make a change through tears of disappointment and shame.
There’s something to the fact that Kate and her brother are sitting on a bathroom floor when this conversation happens. The space that contains these words, in all of their humiliation and hurt and hope, is in itself undignified. Kate’s arm is resting on the toilet seat. She’s in a bathrobe. The scale that indicates the weight of her body sits just inches away and, to her, seems to tell of the weight of her shame as well. The room offers no dignity, but the people do. The people in the room, the emotions welling up within them swirled together with courage, with choice, with connection, they speak of the dignity of personhood, of our desires to march onward together, of the hope of something better.
This Is Us is not without its flaws. Mallory Redmond shares concerns about show’s depiction of race. And, at the show’s darkest moment, words are offered that seek to ease the pain of one in deep mourning, but, as Preston Yancey observes, the hope they offer is lacking. Human connection and walking together through pain are of monumental importance, but without the bonding, reconciling power of Jesus Christ, they are not enough to guide or comfort us in the moments of deepest pain. The writers of This Is Us aren’t telling us that part of the story, but they are exposing the need for it.
This Is Us shows us what life looks like for those living in the shadows desperately seeking to find light. It reminds us of the soul’s cry for the God who made us, made our emotions, is here is with us in them, and gives us one another to help shoulder them. The show doesn’t have all the answers, but its characters make space for one another’s questions, reminding us of the common human desire for a place to safely express our deepest emotions and for people who will acknowledge them, hold our hands, help us keep moving.
While This Is Us does not offer ultimate hope, it does remind us to sit on the bathroom floor with the hurting. It calls us toward a perspective that dignifies emotions as a part of the whole person. It invites us to be the kind of people who sit cross-legged on the tile, backs to the bathtub, low and broken and together, like family. It reminds us of our common humanity, of the moments when we look at each other and ourselves and it seems there is nothing else to say but “well, this is us.” Flawed, fragile, human as can be, the ones who required a God willing to be made flesh, to dwell among us. That’s who we are; we are people in need. And while This Is Us may not know it, that’s the story it is telling. That’s the story of us.
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