We Are All “Us”
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If you aren’t watching This Is Us, you should be
Tuesday-night TV has always been kind of a dead zone for me. I’ve got The Walking Dead on Sundays, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Empire on Wednesdays, and How to Get Away with Murder on Thursdays.
In September, when networks are lobbing new shows at us like my kid chucks Legos, I decided to check out a family drama airing Tuesdays on NBC called This Is Us. If you haven’t heard of it by now, you may be living under a rock.
The show is centered on a family of three siblings—“The Big Three” as their parents call them—going from the present day to flashbacks of their 1980s upbringing by pretty parents Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia.
There are the twins, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley). Kate’s life is controlled by her struggle with obesity and her desire to be loved and accepted both by herself and those around her. Kevin is initially introduced as the flighty actor who mouthed his way out of a job playing a male nanny on the TV show The Manny, though we later learn his seeming self-centeredness is rooted in a longing to be taken seriously. And there’s Randall (Sterling K. Brown), the third baby brought home from the hospital with Kate and Kevin. Adopted as the third member of the Big Three when he was left at a fire station the same day Kate’s and Kevin’s triplet brother died during childbirth, Randall’s journey runs parallel to his siblings’ yet on an entirely different plane as his white parents navigate (with varying degrees of success) parenting a black child.
What makes This Is Us so captivating is that it’s so incredibly real. Yes, Kate has fast-paced monologues that are straight out of Gilmore Girls, and I’m not sure the show touches enough on the emotions of the family losing the third triplet, but damn it’s a good show and always ready to smack you with an unexpected ugly cry.
These characters could be any of us.
As a single mom who built her family through adoption, I’m most focused on Randall’s storyline. It handles the complexities of adoption in a way very few movies and TV shows have. It shows you the good and the difficult.
Moore’s and Ventimiglia’s characters (Rebecca and Jack, respectively) whitewash their son’s childhood, acknowledging but never celebrating his racial heritage. It’s not until Randall is well into elementary school before they even think to take him to a barber who knows how to cut black hair (suggested by a well-meaning woman at the local pool who has no qualms about giving it to Rebecca for ignoring the fact that Randall is black) or enroll him in martial arts where he can have a black male mentor.
The parents also don’t talk much below surface level about Randall’s adoption. Kevin is openly allowed to pick on him, and Randall grows up questioning his place in the family. It’s heartbreaking to watch as the mother of a son who will someday have his own questions about adoption.
Rebecca and Jack’s parenting of Randall (and the two other kids) are in line with how many ’80s parents handled adoption, and it’s a good reminder for today’s parents of the kind of effect that close-mindedness can have on a child and adult adoptee. Rebecca soon learns that adopting a child doesn’t mean closing the door on her son’s beginnings when a member of Randall’s birth family becomes a central figure in his life.
As a single mom without a partner to bounce anything off of—fears, ideas, hopes—I often wonder, How am I doing? I think I got this, but how do I know? As I watch adult Randall work through some of his childhood adoption issues, I’m able to use him as a guide for how I should parent now. That’s how realistic Brown’s performance is.
I won’t give away too many plot points because, well, first, that’s kind of an asshole thing to do, and second, because it is so much more powerful to watch it yourself. But there’s an explosive Thanksgiving dinner scene that blows the top off the danger of secrets and adoption. It hurt to watch it. But it’s something every parent who has adopted or wants to adopt should watch.
Actually, it’s something that everyone should watch. It’s got a great mix of comedy and drama, twists and comfort. An adoption isn’t the only major theme in this show, not by far. This Is Us also tackles LGBT issues, class issues, alcoholism, and what to do if you are stuck in the middle of nowhere for Thanksgiving with three hungry kids.
As the show picks up steam in the second half of its first season, I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. Who else from Randall’s birth family might show up? Will Kate and Toby get a chance to start their lives together? Are they ever going to show us how Miguel got into the picture?
Don’t wait—get caught up and set your DVR now. You won’t regret it.
Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy and two neurotic Italian Greyhounds. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.