Why I’m Loving NBC’s This Is Us

As I’ve grown into adulthood, one of my newer hobbies is watching tv.  Not that I never watched it before, but I’ve got a few shows that I have watched in their entirety.   So far that includes Lost, The Office, and Parenthood, along with my childhood favorite, Saved by the Bell.  But since Parenthood ended, I haven’t found a show I’ve really, really liked.  That is, until a few months ago when NBC started airing their new drama, This Is Us.

When the show started, I was immediately just blown away.  It left me in tears quite a few times, and just absolutely knocked my socks off.  The quality of the story, the depth of the characters, the acting, it’s all phenomenally high-quality.  However, my admiration for the show goes far beyond its production value. What I like about the show is that it honestly portrays the depth of the human condition.

More often than not, major tv shows and hollywood blockbuster films tend to focus either way too much on the enjoyable part of life, where everything is perfect (i.e. The Truman Show), or they can take us down to the depths of human misery (i.e. Intervention).  What makes This Is Us great is that it shows the way human life often weaves through joys, sorrows, ups, and downs.  It shows the importance of family relationships, the value and difficulty of marriage, and the way that the unfortunate tragedies of life can sometimes lead into unexpected beauty.

Though there have only been a handful of episodes, so far I’ve picked up on three major themes I think bear a bit of reflection: (1) the pro-life message of the show and (2) the theme of mercy.

(Spoiler Alert: If you have never seen this show, you may want to watch the pilot episode before continuing)

The Pro-Life Message of This Is Us
At the very beginning of the show, we see two main characters, Rebecca (played by Mandy Moore) and Jack (played by Milo Ventimiglia) rushing off to the hospital to give birth to their triplets.  Rebecca is a high-risk pregnancy, and has been meeting with her doctor and is understandably concerned about the delivery.  But what happens when they show up at the hospital makes things even worse: their doctor is unavailable and another doctor will have to handle the delivery.  By the end of the evening the doctor is able to deliver two healthy babies, but a third, a son, does not make it.  The doctor shares with Jack that he and his wife lost their first child, and that it is part of the reason he went into obstetrics. His advice to Jack is simply beautiful:

“I like to think that because of the child that I lost, because of the path that he sent me on, that I have saved countless other babies.  I like to think that maybe one day, you’ll be an old man like me, talking a younger man’s ear off, explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer, and turned it into something resembling lemonade.  You can do that, then you will still be taking three babies home from this hospital.  Just, maybe not the way you planned.”

It’s one of the most gripping scenes of the entire series thus far, so check it out if you’ve got a moment:

What gets me about this scene is the value it gives to a lost life.  It shows us something of the pain of losing a child, but also the hope of another day, and the difficulty, as well as the beauty of carrying on after such a tragedy.  What happens at the end of the episode, though, adds even more depth to the show.  The young couple, having had such an terrible and painful experience, decides to adopt a child who was abandoned at a local fire station and brought to the hospital.  They take this as a sign that the child was sent to them, and adopt him as one of their own.

To me, this decision, is a fantastic display of the real depth of the pro-life message.  Of course the series goes on to show how their adoption shapes and changes their lives, as well as the child’s life, but just the raw decision of adopting a child is something not often given enough attention.

Being pro-life means more than just opposing abortion.  In This Is Us, Jack and Rebecca adopt a child and care for him just as much as for their own children.  Furthermore, they will teach their biological children to treat their adopted brother as a true brother and member of their family.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out easily for them.  You see, while their children are white, they decided to adopt a black child.  Thus the show helps to highlight the way the pro-life message ought to be reaching out, in a special way, to minority populations.  The family, because of the high value they place on all life, winds up dealing with issues of diversity, racism, and stereotypes as a natural consequence of their pro-life view.

But that’s not the end of it.  Later on in the show, Randall (the adopted child), finds his biological father.  His dad was a former drug addict who has cleaned up his life, but is dying of cancer.  And in ta true pro-life fashion, Randall brings his father into his home, caring for an elderly and poor man who is humbled and embarrassed to be taken care of by his son, the same son he abandoned shortly after his birth. This leads into the second theme: mercy.

Mercy in This Is Us
Perhaps it’s because of the recent Year of Mercy, but I seem to be finding mercy (or at least opportunities for it) almost everywhere.  When Randall initially goes to meet his father, he has planned his entire life for the moment.  He hated being abandoned, and not knowing where he was from, who his father was, and what his reasons were for giving him up as a child.  For three decades, Randall had planned to essentially tell his father that he didn’t need him, that he had made a great life even without the assistance of his father.  His plan is for revenge, to inflict pain like the pain he had experienced his whole life.

But, within the span of just a few seconds, Randall’s plan to get even with his father simply evaporates.  Looking his father in the eyes, and seeing his quiet humility, his obvious contrition for his past, Randall  decides to forgive.  This doesn’t mean all is well and there is nothing left to work through.  But he lets go of his hatred and pain, and tries to move forward toward a more healthy relationship with his dad.

Pope Francis, in his book The Name of God is Mercy, points out that mercy doesn’t mean merely blowing past everything and forgetting that anything bad ever happened.  It means confronting the pain and the sin and acknowledging it.  But then, mercy can move beyond it.  It is more than justice, which makes us pay back what we owe, and make up for what we’ve done.  Mercy says “yes, that was bad” but then helps to purify the relationship, to mend the wounds.  Mercy heals slowly and deeply.  But it starts with the clear acknowledgement of the wrong that has been done.

This Is Us absolutely nails this concept in the relationship between Randall and his biological father, William.  There are certainly other moments of mercy, but here’s one example between Randall and his dad:

This is just a taste of the show, but I find it to be one of the most enjoyable and honest tv shows I’ve ever watched.  the show returned from its winter break last night, and I for one am looking forward to what it holds in store for the future.  So far, the show has dealt with addiction, body image, relationships, marriage, and more.  I anticipate that there will be much more fruit for reflection from This Is Us.  If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out!




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