Why ‘This Is Us’ matters

I love the zombie genre. It’s the tension that gets me, the tension that zombie flicks generate in response to a fundamental creative decision: whether the zombies are fast or slow. If the zombies are fast, then the excitement is in the thrill of the chase (“World War Z,” “Zombieland,” “I Am Legend”). If the zombies are slow, then the tension typically becomes some kind of human drama rather than an action thriller.

I knew the zombies in “The Walking Dead” were slow, so several years ago I convinced my wife to start watching it with the promise that the gruesome zombie thing just gets things started before it settles into a living-human drama. Though tones of living-human drama arose and hummed throughout — and even began to predominate in seasons five and six — “The Walking Dead” continued to revert to escalating goriness to reestablish tension, thus training its viewers to desire the shock of violence. The widely panned premiere episode of season seven was the last episode we watched, when the senseless violence of the living definitively outpaced the thoughtless violence of the dead.

For my penance, I proposed to my wife that we switch our weekly TV show to one I had heard was a genuine, zombie-free, living-human drama: “This Is Us.”    

“This Is Us” is surpassing our expectations and it seems like just about everyone else’s. It generates tension in the most dramatically human way possible: in and through relationships. The drama is so profound and moving because the locus of the relational tension is familial: husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. While there are, of course, other kinds of relationships contributing to the dramatic tension — friendships and dating relationships, for example — the home for the narrative is a single family that is a concentric circle of multigenerational familial bonds that grows to include biological parents and children, adoptive parents and children, stepparents and children, and missing-then-reconnected parents and children. Well into its first full season, the drama is nearly intoxicating, not because it is so bizarre, but rather because it is so familiar. The drama of this family continually mirrors and echoes “real life” with remarkable acuity and insight. In other words, most viewers are finding their own stories, or lost stories, or desired stories in the relational stories orbiting the Pearson family.

This isn’t the first time that the unrivaled appeal of familial relationships has surprised me. For over a decade I’ve run summer conferences for teenagers in which a good portion of the time is dedicated to discussing and exploring their own lives in and through relationships. For years, I expected that teenagers would care most about dating relationships with an additional emphasis on matters relating to sex (they’re teenagers, after all). I figured friendships would come in second and family relationships would be a tertiary factor, eventually. But with nearly 20,000 teenagers passing through our program across two decades, one of the true constants amid all manner of variations in the lives of teenagers is that familial relationships are their primary focus. The majority of their joy, pain, confidence, confusion, hopes and dis-ease course first of all through the relationships between their parents and themselves, then secondly through sibling relationships. Friendships are important, dating is important, but these appear like faint moons in a sky that family relationships light up with all the intensity of a summertime sun.

The overwhelming attraction of “This Is Us” is that all the tension for the drama arises within and from the family that stands at the center. For the most part, that drama has arisen as the untold stories of the Pearson family unfold organically, rather than artificially, as with the surprising violence of “The Walking Dead.” By unfurling the narrative in the time periods of the triplets’ childhood and adulthood, we see how what was present in nuce in the complexities of their childhood home matures or, in some cases, metastasizes into the complexities of their adult lives.

The sons of Jack Pearson respectively reveal his spontaneous charm and disciplined attentiveness, as each of them tries to find the full measure of their father’s commitment to love. The daughter of Rebecca Pearson sees everything she is not in the mother she cannot relate to, misses what she most needs in the father whose memory is tinged with pain, and seeks what she most desires in and through and around herself and her brothers, while sifting through all the true and untrue stories she has been told and tells herself.

The importance and definitive limits of parental care are revealed in tender and heartbreaking displays through Jack and Rebecca and William and even Miguel, as well as in Randall and Beth, who want to empower and shield their children at the same time. The singular focus of the show is the mystery of familial relationships, from which first hopes emerge and last hopes return, and about which meaning is inexhaustible. It is difficult to think of a more concentrated focus on familial relationships since the Book of Genesis.

There will come a point when the creators feel the end of the organic narrative they are telling and will face the temptation to keep their show going by jumpstarting the drama with something inorganic. They’ve come close already with one surprise heart-attack and a first-love, ex-wife who suddenly appears in Kevin’s tangled romantic life, but these were not so foreign as to stretch belief and, in the end, were neatly drawn into the orbit of the multigenerational narrative. By contrast, the creators of “The Walking Dead” never quite knew what kind of story they were telling, or what the end would be, and when they finally settled into a story worth telling half-a-dozen seasons in, they got jumpy and gave into the lust for surprise.

Even one of the most tightly written dramas in television history flirted with its own derailment when “Breaking Bad” dedicated an entire episode to the overdrawn metaphor of a fly buzzing around an otherwise spotless laboratory, or got so carried away with the chemical reaction of moral choices that two planes collided right over the main character’s home. That said, Vince Gilligan and friends were able to hold the whole thing together as a deeply human drama where the question of the communicability of human pride poses the silent question of the communicability of human redemption.

The real task for the creators of “This Is Us” is to know when to let it end and, before that time, to have a sense of what the end will be. Otherwise, the temptation to jumpstart the narrative and create artificial tensions will lead them away from the timeless and ever-timely appeal of familial relationships. Of course, the challenge for viewers will be to resist the temptation simply to want to be entertained, getting attached to the feelings of ecstasy and sorrow, and find ourselves only craving surprise. In other words, the importance of “This Is Us” will only matter so long as we are all willing to let it go when its organic conclusion arrives, preferring a natural end to the prolonged existence of a narrative that is walking around after it already died.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., is director of Notre Dame Vision in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame. He is author of Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace that Illumine Our Lives (Ave Maria Press, 2016) and Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).