Rebecca smiles, looking at the two washing machines in the basement of the house. She remembers when the three children were small and those washing machines worked at full speed. She also remembers how many times her husband, Jack, had to come in and try to repair them, even as they spewed foam over him.
This is one of the many familiar habits which “This Is Us”, a recently released family drama, depicts. The series can be considered timeless, in the sense that it does not develop the relationship of the three brothers and their parents in a linear way, starting from the beginning, in the 1980s, to arrive at the present day. Rather, it passes easily from the present to the past precisely because what counts most is the isolated emotional moment that is created. This could be the moment when the spouses, having fought, reconcile; or when one brother gives to another some wise advice; or when the “Big Three” are finally reunited for Christmas or Thanksgiving.
The leaps in time follow a logical path, that of thematic consistency. Each episode implicitly follows a specific theme that serves to underline how intertwined the lives of the members of a family are: a decision made in the past ends up affecting the present; and the memory of what happened, whether it be good or bad, ends up conditioning the present situation.
In some episodes religion makes an appearance. Little Kevin, who learned from his mother that Christmas is not just about gifts but that it is a “matter that concerns Jesus,” goes to a shop of religious items and, among many statues of Mother Mary and the saints, asks the clerk: “Which is the one that helps you pray better?”
Another beautiful episode involves the fireman who, recalling the time when young Randall was abandoned at the door of the barracks, being a good man, then goes to confession to talk about his time of marital crisis and asks the priest for the “miracle” of reconciliation. This does not have a serious impact on the narrative itself; its relevance is, rather, that it encapsulates man’s natural religiosity. Something similar is conveyed with the wisdom about good behaviour that is expressed with a certain solemnity by the protagonists in almost every episode.
Dr. K turns to the distraught Jack after the death of the third brother to remind him that it is necessary to turn a sour lemon into lemonade, and suggests he adopt the newborn baby just brought to hospital. The same Dr. K, in meeting 10-year-old Randall, points out: “If you will find a great way to show someone the same goodness that you have been shown, this will be the most beautiful gift that you could do for me.”
There is still plenty of yielding to current trends: among the protagonists there is a bisexual, a situation that is used to make digs against homophobia; two others spend a night smoking marijuana, not without having clarified, maybe to reassure the public, that the doctors have declared that use of marijuana does not carry any risk of addiction.
Overall, the series is able to offer us many intense moments of familial truths — even if sometimes it’s unable to avoid rather noisy doses of more mundane truths about daily life.
The widespread use of psychological categories for the portrayal of the various characters leaves us a little unsettled. Kate seems to be defined only by the fact that she feels overweight; Kevin is a perpetually insecure man and obsessed – to the point of anxiety — of being successful as an actor, William was a drug addict, Jack often resorts to alcohol, and Randall feels obliged to adopt a child at all costs to reciprocate the generosity of his own foster parents. Even his trying to be always helpful to everyone is not seen by his wife as a virtue but is perceived as “an obsession with perfection.”
Rather than proactive characters who have identified the objective of their own lives and pursue it with tenacity, we see characters that are reactive, driven in part by the conditioning received in childhood.
A critical judgment
“This Is Us” values all the family affections (between spouses, between parents and children, between siblings) highlighting them as the sources to draw upon in order to have a happy life. From a technical point of view, it knows how to build moments of sincere emotion and intimate conversation even if it tends to stereotype the protagonists according to their peculiar characteristics.
The series has been aired on Fox Life since November 2016 and is now available on the platform Prime Video.
Franco Olearo writes for Family and Media, where this article was first published. It is republished here with permission.