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How I learned to stop worrying and love This Is Us

Why NBC’s hit series works for the masses (but turns off some TV critics): a working theory.

This Is Us
Toby and Kate are getting hitched! #KaToby!
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I don’t always have nice things to say about This Is Us, a show I like so much in theory that I find the ways it falls short of the Platonic ideal of itself I hold in my head so much more frustrating than if it were just some series I couldn’t get into.

It got too hung up on the mystery of Jack’s death. Its time-hopping storytelling structure often turns it into a nonsensical mosaic of moments meant to make a larger picture of a crying cat face emoji. And it increasingly seems to be far more about capturing big moments at the expense of anything else.

But it’s one of the most necessary shows in America right now.

For all that I don’t connect with the show, it’s clearly connected with a huge, huge audience that finds something worthwhile in it. And while watching “The Wedding,” the show’s second season finale, I think I finally tapped into what that was, during one of its climactic moments, a toast given by Pearson sibling Kevin to his sister, Kate, and her new husband, Toby.

There’s a subset of Americans who overvalue our stoicism, who see it as projecting a kind of calm, steady strength to those around us, and to the rest of the world when all of that stoicism combines into a national aggregate. But This Is Us is about the dangers of not feeling your feelings, about what happens when you bottle everything up and repress it. What’s more, it wants to give its audience a safe space every week to feel those emotions, to process their own grief and sorrow and even joy. All of the things I don’t like about it aren’t flaws. They’re the whole point.

More traditional family dramas focus on day-to-day minutiae. This Is Us can always go big.

This Is Us
Kevin and Randall hunt for their sister, fearing she’s developed cold feet on her wedding day.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Lest this sound like my own personal “He loved Big Brother” moment from the end of 1984 (picture me gazing tearfully up at a giant poster of Milo Ventimiglia), my opinions of This Is Us haven’t shifted. I’m still as frustrated by it as I am occasionally moved by it. I found the recent McSweeney’s parody of the show brutally funny, and it has definitely felt like the series is casting about for new ideas to drive it forward now that the mystery of how Jack died has been resolved.

But part of criticism is figuring out these disconnects between what a lot of people love and what you just can’t connect to. And as Kevin talked about how his sister helped him realize that holding on to his grief over his dad’s death (which happened 20 years ago) wasn’t helping him, or her, or their other brother, Randall, or their mother, I realized that TV critics like me, who are fond of navel-gazing, might not be the best audience for a show about a bunch of people who couldn’t find their navels with a belly button detector.

To be clear, there are plenty of acclaimed dramas that hit similar notes (like FX’s The Americans or HBO’s The Sopranos, both shows about antiheroes who struggle when confronted with the messiness of their own feelings), but these shows tend to be a little more removed and cerebral. This Is Us is right up in it. It wants you to feel everything its characters feel, and then connect it to what you might be feeling.

As somebody who’s practiced it for too many years, emotional repression is a hell of a thing, one that can sock you from out of nowhere in ways you can’t understand. To me, the fact that the various characters on This Is Us can’t quite comprehend how badly the death of their father sent them spiraling feels obvious because that’s essentially all the show chooses to focus on. To them, trapped as they are in the forward time stream of their own lives, their father disappearing further and further into the past, it might start to seem like a bad dream they once had, all the easier to push down and keep locked away in their own guts, until it spills out as bile.

I think the time-hopping method the show uses to do this doesn’t quite work, because it so dissociates the audience from what the characters are experiencing. Because we’re constantly jumping around in time — seriously, the final sequence of “The Wedding” is just a free-associative jumble of time skips from the present to the future to the even further future as soft acoustic guitar music plays and Randall delivers his own toast — we feel all of their pain in the present, while the characters simply don’t. It increasingly feels like the show is simply going to become a long series of disconnected scenes that all end with its various actors (excellent criers, all) letting a tear trickle down their cheek.

Contrast this with a more traditional family drama (say, Parenthood), where the emotional moments feel earned because the show is generally trapped by the forward progression of time, by the day-to-day minutiae of everyday life. Parenthood had to work to get you invested in whatever the Bravermans happened to be up to that week. This Is Us can simply drop you into the middle of a fraught moment from the characters’ childhood and call it good, which means it too often slacks on its present-day stories.

Yet maybe that’s also part of the show’s genius. Creator Dan Fogelman and his team are replicating the way emotional repression works, maybe, the way it hides like a horror movie villain in your subconscious, always rising up again when you think you’ve defeated it. We experience their story as a dissociative ramble because that’s the way we experience our lives, the way we might suddenly be shocked by some sense memory of some long-forgotten loved one, now lost to us but vivid in some part of our brains, and have to pause what we’re doing, just for a second, to catch our breath.

This Is Us fans talk about how much the show makes them cry, and it always sounds vaguely sadistic, like they’re taking part in a group therapy session run by a real jerk. But is it so bad to cry, even a lot, when we live in a world that told so many of us it was unbecoming to do so?

This Is Us isn’t a particularly good television show, but it’s an excellent pressure release valve. And couldn’t you use a pressure release valve?

The first two seasons of This Is Us are available on Hulu. Season three debuts in the fall on NBC.

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