Memory and longing in “This is Us”

Please note: this piece mentions bereavement.

I never thought I would be the kind of person who’d enjoy a show featuring cheesy adages and extended sibling conversations that sound like family therapy. I’ve always gone for the irreverent approaches of Grey’s Anatomy or The Office, whose focuses on character development are nevertheless coupled with the thrill of medical emergencies or awkward comedy.

Reference image from NBC.

But there I was this Friday, reviewing every frame of the 88-episode This is Us (a series of that exact description), for a visualisation that I had wanted to make for months. First aired in 2016, the show follows Pennsylvania newlyweds Jack (a foreman) and Rebecca (an aspiring singer) Pearson as they raise triplets Kevin, Kate, and Randall in the ‘80s, eventually taking viewers through more than 70 years of multigenerational stories from the couple’s own childhoods to the births of their grandchildren.

Two details add interest to the plot of This is Us.

The first is that the Pearsons’ son Randall is a transracial adoptee (Rebecca’s third biological child, Kyle, was stillborn) who was dropped off at a fire station around the time of his siblings’ births and taken to the hospital where our new parents stayed at the time. Jack and Rebecca’s decision to raise this child as their own following a tragedy manifests conflict throughout the series, raising questions of who is considered “capable” of parenting and whether Randall should have grown up with a Black family.

The second may be the most talked-about event of the entire series: the death of Jack Pearson during his children’s last year of high school. This plot point forms the climax of season 2, and its effect on the siblings’ coming-of-age is, again, evident throughout the show.

It’s easy to figure out why — Jack is portrayed as a superhuman father through little details and grand gestures alike. When Kate finds no one to teach her newfound voguing skills to at an early birthday party, he volunteers without hesitation. When he finds out Randall is academically gifted, he accepts a promotion at a job he detests to send him to a better school. And when Kevin’s middle school football* coach filthily berates him, Jack confronts the man in a bar without a fuss and tells him to knock it off.

But this likeable character is also flawed; he swallows his trauma about the Vietnam War, where he fought alongside his brother Nicky, and estranges the latter in the process. He struggles with alcoholism for most of his adult life and has aggressive tendencies that he must work to suppress.

Nevertheless, as the This is Us triplets age, marry, and have their own children, they remember their father and never stop trying to live up to his name.

Following this lengthy introduction, here is my visualisation. Because the show often switches between chronological settings, even during one episode, I wanted to track how often we look back in time. I categorised most scenes using a before/after dichotomy, but there were a handful that feature an imaginary elderly Jack interacting with his now-adult children.

Made with R’s ggplot2 package. The title of this graphic is inspired by one of the aforementioned cheesy quotes of the show — Dr. K, the physician who attends to Rebecca’s births and later comforts her after Jack’s death, says: “There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.”

What patterns are visible?

In season 1, as the Pearsons’ story is introduced, we see a lot of Jack. There’s even one episode devoted entirely to his backstory. These flashbacks also feature other characters, such as Randall’s biological parents and Jack and Rebecca’s families.

Season 2 focuses more on the present, although the episodes adjacent to the depiction of Jack’s death are almost wholly focused on the “before”. In the last episode of the season, accidentally taken recreational drugs make the adult Randall hallucinate his father giving him advice.

Seasons 3 and 4 show even less of Jack. Season 5, filmed during the pandemic, still manages to include the patriarch, though the graphic’s overall pattern suggests that Jack’s presence becomes more rare as the show’s writers begin to focus on the present.

This is a reproduction of a shot of Rebecca holding one of Jack’s architectural drawings. He sketched this during a family trip to their cabin when the kids were pre-teens, saying that he dreamt of building a house in the woods for them. Reference image from NBC’s “This is Us”.

So why should you watch “This is Us”?

  1. The characters are relatable. They search for the approval of others, lash out in ways that they later regret, and struggle with their body image and mental health. Despite their best intentions, they often fall short of what’s required of them. Nevertheless, they are good, and work in constant pursuit of empathy.
  2. The story is optimistic. We’re devastated about Jack’s death because it was such a joy to watch him interacting with Rebecca and his children, and even through his family’s recovery from grief is not linear, it is never devoid of hope. Besides, there’s plenty of dark humour.
  3. Current affairs are handled well. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy have disappointed me with the artificial nature of their COVID-19 seasons, as well as their surface-level coverage of racial justice issues. Though This is Us does not incorporate the pandemic seamlessly into its narrative, its approach is, once again, authentic and appropriately characterised. Its take on race is also intersectional, combined with commentaries on gender, class, adoption issues, and incarceration. Some references to discrimination are unspoken, yet obvious in their searing honesty.

Season 6 will be the last time we see the Pearsons on screen — how much of the past will we relive then? And are you ready to join me in tears and laughter?

Thank you so much for reading!

*American football.

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she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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Yaning Wu

Yaning Wu

she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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