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Two reasons why “This Is Us” might be the greatest piece of art of the 21st Century

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Daniel and I sit down, rather solemnly. Me with a bowl of ice cream. He with a nice glass of wine. We want this to be a good and significant event.

The dog is snuggled between us. We adjust the blankets and then look at each other. “Are you ready?”, he asked. I nodded. “You?”.

He presses play on the TV remote.

The Pearson Family is one of the great artistic creations of the 21st century.

For the last three years or so, Daniel and I have been sitting on this sofa maybe once or twice a month and watching episodes of This is Us. And tonight is the season and series finale. No more Jack and Becca and Randall and Kevin and Kate.

If you haven’t watched this show then most of what follows will be meaningless. But if, like us, you have been pulled high and low by its exquisite family storytelling, then you may have goosebumps already. I won’t give any spoilers - just in case you have the joy of watching it all ahead of you, - but I would like to sing its praises a little.

I would like to hazard that the Pearson Family - obsessively documented in the 100+ hour-long episodes - is one of the great artistic creations of the 21st century.

In the last century, we looked to theatre, books, concert halls and cinemas for our masterpieces but in the last few decades, the small screen has made a very good grab at the artistic laurels. And underrated and overlooked as This Is Us has been, I’m going to argue for its greatness.

It’s not just the beautiful acting or skillful plotting. (No less than Russell T Davies said it was some of the finest writing on television.) And believe me, I could go on at length about the sigh-inducing beauty of Mandy Moore who plays the young and very old Rebecca Pearson. (Each time it cuts to her aged 60+ I turn to Daniel and say, “It cannot be the same actor!”). And I lost count of the number of times Daniel and I would groan with unrefined desire when 1970s Jack played by Milo Ventimiglia appeared without his shirt.

No, I think that the real magic of the show is two-fold:

1. the incredible thing it does with time and memory

2. the incredible thing it does with our notion of the ‘good family’.

The first thing that sets the show apart from almost all other books and films I know is the game it plays with memory.

Again, I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t watched the show, but from the very first episode, the writers (led by Dan Fogelman, the showrunner) do something very unique with time.

All the events of the universe exist simultaneously and the illusion of things unfolding from past to future is a trick of the light

Essentially, the TV series acts as a form of meta-memory. It allows us as viewers to remember more than the individuals whose lives we are watching. That privilege is deepened further by the fact we can see into their future. But only as far as the all-powerful show runners allow us.

There is a concept in the far reaches of philosophy called block time. That’s the idea that all the events of the universe exist simultaneously and the illusion of things unfolding from past to future is a trick of the light. When you take out time’s arrow then everything in someone’s life, for example, is accessible all at once.

Something similar, but more curated, happens in This Is Us. As the series moves its Narrative Now slowly forward over 6 seasons, we as viewers access the block time of the Pearson’s universe which contains all their futures and pasts simultaneously.

There are futures that we are not privy to until the showrunners reveal them to us

We all know, for example, that our parents are going to die someday. But at one moment in the timeline, Jack’s children are oblivious to the future fact of his death, even as we poignantly know that it is looming in their future.

Where the ‘curation’ comes in is, that as the show unfolds, there are futures that we are not privy to, until the showrunners reveal them to us. So, like the characters, we too have to navigate blind spots in our future and past knowledge. The show plays with these conceptual gaps incredibly well. We might know that character dies because we have seen into the future of their grieving family. But we are not privy to how they die - and so the show leads us down false ends. We assume that this is going to be their last night on earth but it turns out to be a night like any other.

Many shows use ‘flashbacks’ to propel the narrative but This Is Us is supremely skilled at using the ‘flashforward’.

In the beginning, we flash forward to Jack’s death - filling in the gaps bit by bit. And towards the end, we are flashing forward to Rebecca’s death and backward to Jack’s. Consequently, the narrative centre is very slippery. It would be hard to say, for example, when any one episode is set because it is only set somewhere within the whole block time of the Pearson family’s collective lifespan.

In the modern world, what does it mean to be a good mom and a good dad?

Within this magical mastery of narrative time, Dan Fogelman then spends 100+ hours pondering the nature of a ‘good family'. And this is the second great reason to watch the show.

Obviously, over 106 episodes the show covers lots of familial and social material - race, teenage anger, addictions of all shades, Covid, divorce - but I would say its abiding theme is the “good family”. In the modern world (from the 80s onwards) what does it mean to be a good mom and a good dad?

All the peripheral characters who marry into the Pearson clan comment on the intense charisma and cohesion of the five core members. They joke about never being able to compete or ever truly integrate into the impenetrable unit of Jack, Rebecca, Kate, Kevin and Randall.

The joke is, in fact, that this family can never be inhabited because it is insanely unreal.

An ideal father who never fails because he dies young and all his failings disappear in the sugared aspic of memory

There were innumerable moments in the last few years where Daniel and I would genuinely berate one another with a “Well, Jack wouldn’t do that”, or “Do you think Rebecca would speak that way to her husband?”. As if this fictive Hollywood creation was a reasonable yardstick for our lives. But nonetheless, we want it to be the yardstick. We want those sort of families to exist.

I work as a therapist and I have never encountered families as good as this one. (That may, of course, be because the members of families like this do not need therapy.) But, nonetheless, it feels right to say that a figure like Jack Pearson functions as an ideal father who never fails because he dies young and all his failings disappear in the sugared aspic of memory. And a figure like Rebecca Pearson functions as an ideal mother who does extend into the complexities of a long human life but is redeemed - not by her later actions - but by the workings of TV’s redemptive memory.

Her actions and sterling qualities may be extinguished in her aging character’s story arc - (trying not to spoiler here) - but they get amplified and perfected in the web of memories and life fragments that those clever writers spin together.

Even when our siblings and parents are still alive - do we ever really know them for who they are?

We have Jack and Rebecca’s memories and then, more and more intensely, their children’s memories but, cleverly, also our own memories of the Pearsons all orchestrated by the kindly “memory masters” in the writing room.

In an important sense, families are made of memories. We can be haunted or helped by parents and loved ones who are long dead because memories are what hold a family together. Remembered slights. Remembered kindnesses. Even when our siblings and parents are still alive - do we ever really know them for who they are or are we always remembering them as who we want them to be or who they failed to be in the past?

And it’s this complex web of memory and time that This Is Us spins so beautifully.

There is a well Instagrammed quote from Rebecca Pearson in this last season of the show that talks about the importance of little, insignificant things. These are the things we need to remember from our lives. Not the big dramas but eating Poptarts on a Saturday morning or teaching your sons to shave or playing Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey.

More time appreciating it when it was all happening instead of worrying about when it might end.

One image that struck me as emblematic of this show’s genius is a tiny detail from the very last episode (again, I don’t think this is a spoiler in any meaningful way). Jack and Rebecca are in bed, in their 1980s incarnations, and he notices a tiny scar under her eye that he’s never seen before. And she recalls how she was on a playground swing when she was a little girl with her father. (And here the show does its block time thing by showing us all the children from all generations past and future being pushed in swings.) But tellingly, in a show that works so subtly with time, it is her father’s watch that cuts Rebecca. As she swings back, he isn’t paying attention and she catches her eye on the edge of his watch.

That might be seen as a stand-in for the traumas that parents unintentionally inflict on children by being inattentive (and that has certainly been a theme in the show) but, with a sweetness that is entirely characteristic of This Is Us, Rebecca spins it in a completely loving way:

“My dad felt so bad. But I didn’t care because him pushing me in that swing was my favorite thing in the entire world. That swing. It was such a treat for me, going there with him. I would spend the entire time worrying about when he was going to stop pushing me. And say it was time to go home. Ah. I really wish I had spent more time appreciating it when it was all happening instead of worrying about when it might end. At least I still have the scar.”

As Daniel and I sobbed through the last 60 minutes - happy/sad tears - there was something similar at play.

We had spent several months dreading the show being over. Dreading the writers telling us it was time to go home. And yet, in their loving way, here they were encouraging us to savour these last moments - just as its characters were savouring them.

The sadness and the happiness. The grief at losing these lovely Pearsons and the joy at having known them. We were like little Rebecca on the swing. There were tiny scars of sadness but a lesson about enjoying this experience, even as we lose it.

If you're a fan of This Is Us and have thoughts and feelings about the show I'd love to hear them! Just comment below...

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