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April 11, 2017

A Thoroughly Modern Family

NBC’s This Is Us is rethinking the family drama.

Melissa Byers
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC
  • NBC


Family dramas are often warm and fuzzy, uplifting and inspiring, and generally have happy endings.

Then, there is This Is Us. While it may have all the usual family drama elements, it also speaks to real societal issues such as adoption, body image, addiction, and race.

The show takes place in several time periods in the lives of the Pearson family, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and their three children, Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown). The pilot episode set the tone for the rest of the series, exploring the parallel lives of three people born on the same day, as well as a young couple expecting triplets.

Only at the end of the episode does the viewer realize that these are all part of the same family, and that the parents’ story takes place 30 years earlier, when they lost one of their triplets and adopted an abandoned black baby to complete their family.

From there, the series follows the parallel story lines through the ups and downs of raising three children, coping with the inherent challenges of raising - and being - an African American child in a white family, weight issues for daughter Kate, and trying to be sure that all the children are treated as equally as possible, including Kevin, the one child with no apparent immediate issues who often feels left out.

Add to this mix Randall’s successful search for his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), and integrating him into the family.  William had dropped the infant Randall off at a fire station because he couldn’t take care of him, but he stayed close and watched as Jack and Rebecca took the child home into their family.

Rebecca confronted him, and they made a pact that he would not interfere with Randall’s life.  Rebecca never told Randall about meeting his father, and when the adult Randall finds out, a rift opens up between mother and son.

In the intervening years, William acquired addictions which further complicated his life, so that when Randall finds him, he is hardly more father material than he was when Randall was born.

Kate has grown up fighting her weight, and we first meet her as she is attending a weight loss group. There she meets Toby (Chris Sullivan), whose lighthearted approach to both weight loss and life are at first at odds with Kate’s serious approach, but eventually begin to win her over. She has built her life around taking care of her twin Kevin as he pursued an acting career, without taking time to find her own path. Toby helps her to break out of the pattern and see the world in a new light.

Kevin has become a successful sitcom actor, starring in a show called The Manny. When we meet him, however, he is miserable in the role and longs to be a “real” actor, walking out on the show and impulsively moving to New York to do a play, for which he is cast because his fame as “the manny” will help to sell tickets.

His co-star, a beautiful British stage actress, devises many ways to bring him out of his sitcom mindset and teach him how to be a genuine actor, in the process becoming a more genuine man.

Interspersed with these scenes from the “Big Three”’s present day lives are scenes from their childhood, lending context to where they are.

We see Randall trying to find his way in a world of white children, and his parents trying to navigate raising him with an appreciation both for their culture and his own.  We watch as Kate faces the cruelty of the other girls over her weight. And, as their parents are trying to work through those issues, we watch Kevin trying desperately to get some attention of his own.

All these stresses are also played out in problems in Jack and Rebecca’s lives and relationship. Jack takes a job he really doesn’t want, because he has a family to support. He begins drinking, leading to problems with Rebecca.  Rebecca gives up singing in a local bar because she has kids to raise at home. Each character is presented as a complete human being, good and bad.

This Is Us offers no simple answers, no contrived happy endings, no easy conclusions. Characters hurt themselves and one another. Characters die. Lives are messy and complicated and real.  This family drama is more like everyone’s real family.

For its courage, intelligence, and realism, we are proud to include This Is Us in the Television Academy Honors.

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