I live off of cheesy TV. It has become a fact of my emotionally volatile collegiate existence. I can only take so much “Mr. Robot” edginess, “Game of Thrones” grit, and “BoJack Horseman” nihilism before I need a break to the tune of “Jane the Virgin,” “Bob’s Burgers,” or “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Twenty-first century TV offers high-budget prestige dramas that the medium has never seen before, but sometimes I just wanna laugh at kooky family antics or watch perfect people fall in love, and the long-reigning category of feel-good TV continues to serve up such delights with verve.
NBC’s “This is Us” was the first network show to score an Emmy nomination since 2011’s “The Good Wife.” It averages 15 million viewers a week and is one of TV’s most watched shows. And yet, I have literally never met another human being who watches it. Why is this? Well, for one, it is a prime example of feel-good cheesy TV. In the space of nearly every 42 minute episode, a heart is broken, a bond is renewed, and a lesson is learned by someone. This can be occasionally difficult to swallow. “Jane the Virgin” pokes fun at its own melodrama by parodying the telenovela, allowing every twist and turn to be taken with a grain of salt. “This is Us” is unapologetically sentimental and entirely earnest. This isn’t to say it isn’t funny—the witty one-liners and situational humor are integral to its feel-good formula—but it takes every single one of its subplots seriously.
This level of sincerity surrounding fairly simple family drama makes it feel like a show of a different age (despite the constant peppering of pop culture references), and the ads that greet me whenever I watch it seem to confirm this: they are almost all for rheumatoid arthritis medication, life insurance policies, and viagra. “This is Us” is seemingly watched by a huge population of baby boomers, and there are aspects of the show that feel embarrassingly old fashioned. The story is told through four interlocking narratives, one of which takes place in the 70s and 80s and follows the story of Jack and Rebecca Pearson, who lose one of three triplets in childbirth. Inspired by their sagely doctor “to take the worst lemons life can offer and make them into something resembling lemonade,” they adopt a baby born on the same day, conveniently abandoned by his heroin-addled father on the stoop of a fire station. Jack and Rebecca (as well as their two living triplets, Kevin and Kate) are white, while the adopted baby, Randall, is Black.
At this point, it looks like the story is going to be dangerously “The Blind Side:” a tale of middle-class white saviors welcoming a Black boy into their loving arms. But the other three narratives follow the triplets as adults in the modern day, and Randall’s story involves him reconnecting with his lost father, William, now sober. Randall has made it rich by working on Wall Street, while William has spent his life as a working-class artist protesting white supremacy. While out for a stroll, William is accused of loitering by Randall’s affluent, white neighbors, and Randall chooses to allay their fears rather than calling them out on their racism. William confronts him about this, and Randall opens up about the struggles he faces everyday as a Black man in a white industry, and confides that repressing his anger is the only way he prevents himself from exploding. Neither Randall nor William’s methods of coping are portrayed as better or worse, and instead morality is left ambiguous. Jack and Rebecca’s narrative explore their own shortcomings in trying to raise Randall “just like everyone else” when the mother of a local Black family scolds them for isolating him from Black communities and Black role models.
Kate, Randall’s sister, faces issues of her own in her adult life. She is obese, but unlike many overweight characters on television, she is never the punchline of the joke. Her struggles with dieting are treated with the same seriousness as any story about addiction, and the hardships and cruelty she faces are presented openly and realistically. Kevin’s story is a little more white-bread, following his endeavors to be taken seriously as an actor after leaving his world-famous, god-awful sitcom “The Manny.” But his tangles of romance and Hollywood-meets-serious-theater culture clashes provide classic melodrama and hijinks that make the show all the more watchable.
Kevin, Kate, and Randall are all children of the early 80s, making them first-wave Millennials and their parents Baby Boomers, by most definitions.
I know you have probably consumed enough think-pieces about generational divides to feed a small army, so I’ll keep this to a general consensus: Millennials and Baby Boomers are different. They share different values, watch different entertainment, and vote for different politicians. This election has made the discrepancy more painful than ever. But no matter how removed we may feel from our parents and grandparents, we are all a part of the same culture, and that cross-generational connection is what is at the heart of “This is Us.” It is a show that blends melodrama with social justice, the American dream of the 70s and 80s with the reality of the 21st century, and the stories of parents with those of their children. “This is Us” is a show about family, and as cheesy and tired as that may feel, it remains as important today as ever.