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  • Tracey Kelley

This Is Us: Universal themes for the win

So it was January 2017 and I was surfing Hulu for a new show to binge while I took care of some paperwork. (I sometimes multi-task when I watch TV. Sure, menial tasking, but it helps. I'm not like other people I know who can write a novel while "Black Mirror" or something plays on an iPad mini.)

It was a cold, dark winter. A lot of political upheaval. Many unhappy and ticked-off people. And also for me, the ebbing of a bout of depression starting to edge into my being. It happens. I deal with it as best I can, including natural light lamps, vitamin D3, meditation, yoga, and if I plan and save wisely, a jaunt to a warmer clime with a lot of sunshine.

I wasn't sleeping well either--an effect of the depression--so binging, while not the proper remedy, at least lulled me for a while until I could slip into bed quietly and read until finally drifting off. So the selected show had to entertain me, but not too much. I don't watch TV in real time. It doesn't fit my schedule. I miss a lot of programs--sometimes by a couple of years!--that mass and social media rave about simply because I'm not paying attention. So when I clicked on the "This Is Us" icon, I genuinely was unaware of its incredible popularity, and had no idea what I was getting into or its context. About 2/3rds through the first ep of S1, I thought, "Meh. It's cute. But I don't know if I should invest too much time in it." Full reveal: I cry easily. I mean straight-up waterworks about talking to old friends; seeing the first tulips in my yard; watching videos of dogs being adopted and they know they're going to a new home; reading the end of Toni Morrison novels; hearing Sam Beam or Alison Krauss sing; clicking on sappy commercials even though I know they're sappy. On. And on. So 2/3rds through the ep, I thought it was going to be a pleasant little family drama to fill the space for people after "Parenthood" ended (and I watched about 3 seasons of that, but the dangling story lines made it less enjoyable for me). Then the twist happened. I stopped sorting papers. It wasn't one of those Hail Mary narrative twists that happen in lesser tales when there doesn't seem to be any other choice and the wand of cleverness, however transparent, has to be waved.


It was a full on, yagottabekiddingmelookithowallthesethreadstietogetherHOLYCOWTHESEWRITERSAREBRILLIANT! twist. I bawled. Big slobbery tears. And within two days, watched all the available episodes. Then convinced my husband to rewatch them with me so we could catch up to the show in somewhat real time (and I thank NBC and Hulu for continuing to make this happen, as we still can't watch it at air time). It was a soothing balm to be so immediately connected to these fictional characters. Amidst all the noise, I wanted to be under the influence of people who cared. Yes, it's a weensy bit emotionally manipulative. I don't care. Yes, I know few people who have such a stable family life to deal with these wild and incredible highs, lows, and secrets in life. I don't care. I love the dynamic of Beth and Randall (and the always the quotable Beth!). I admire Kate, but LOVE Toby. I want to believe my husband and I can continue to evolve to be like Rebecca and Jack, both individually and together. And Kevin, bless him and his time-traveling antagonistic ways. I'm certain his life will be better and more loving soon. And I still cry during every episode. More importantly, I adore the writing. This team's approach, led by creator Dan Fogelman, conveys the importance and vitality of universal themes. Why a single conversation between a father and daughter matters, or the last words said before leaving on a seemingly normal night, or sharing a moment of breath with someone...these and so many other tiny life moments that connect all of us. The writing skill to have one inkling of an idea (such as tonight's episode--what really happens with the patriarch's death and why it was the plan all along) and write up to it--not as an ending, but as an arc, is so incredibly impressive. I often look at good television and film narratives to determine the structural development of a written story because how does a look, a touch, a walk out of a room, influence not only the primary arc, but also those in between that create weight and purpose. Hard to do in an hour. Or two.

The unbelievable balance the writers of "This Is Us" create between characters and timelines is creatively inspirational, and another reason why I can't get enough of the show.

I'm not the only one to say any of this--I'm just another grain of sand on the popular shore of viewers--but I stress it again with the hope that the entertainment arts will continue to be bold and delve into emotions and humanity with real purpose. Image courtesy of NBC

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