It was an otherwise uneventful Tuesday night. I returned home from work around 7 p.m., did some cardio at the gym, took a long hot shower, and made myself some avocado toast before settling in front of the TV to catch up on shows. But by 11 p.m., I was hiccup-sobbing into my Minnie Mouse pyjama top, using Minnie’s glitter-filled bow to wipe my nose because I was too blinded by tears to find tissues.
Why? Because of This Is Us, my friends.
When I first watched the pilot, I couldn't stop rolling my eyes. The over-the-top sentimentality, the emotionally manipulative plot twists, the obviously melancholic music — the whole thing felt pretty cheesy, a family-friendly sitcom of soap-opera proportions. And still, for some strange, inexplicable reason, by the end of the first episode, I was hooked.
Now, every single week, I cannot get enough. Somehow each Tuesday I've been able to put aside all of the series' tropes and cliches so I can cuddle up with the Pearson family, completely giving into their unabashed attempts to pull at my heartstrings — the knee-slapping Toby jokes, the Big Three mantra, the starry-eyed romantic flashbacks of Jack and Rebecca.
Apparently, I'm not alone. Eleven million viewers tuned in last week. Live. Every Wednesday morning at work, it's all anyone is talking about. One of my friend's biggest claims to fame is that he never cries (not even when we went to the Adele concert — and it's physically impossible to not cry at an Adele concert!), and yet during a recent episode, he sent me a photo of himself releasing a single, fat, rolling tear.
This Is Us is widely known as the most maudlin show on television. So why are we all rushing to welcome the flood of intense feels that are sure to come with every episode? Are we all martyrs? Self-sabotaging? Or just sad, sad people? Even on Twitter, viewers have started proposing the #ThisIsUs hashtag be changed to #DisTewMuch, a nod to the series' ability to bring out emotions from even the most stoic viewers.
If, like me, you're worried about your desire to tune in to a weepy show that is almost certainly going to make you cry, University of Oklahoma psychology professor Jessica Black, PhD, assures us that those super-saccharine moments are exactly why the series is resonating so deeply with everyone right now.
“One of the interesting things about the way people relate to fiction both on TV and in books is that they form actual relationships with the characters” says Black, who has studied the effects of television on the mind. “You get so involved with them that you experience their emotions with them. And then after you have that good cry, you actually feel good, probably because you needed to let something out. But on the surface, it's because of a TV show, so you get to walk away and say, 'It was just fiction.' It's like a free pass to release your emotions."
Don't get me wrong. This Is Us is not universally beloved. For some people — like my clearly heartless, coldblooded colleague Naveen Kumar — the sweet factor is just too much to stomach. Even with all of its borderline ridiculous platitudes, it's particularly interesting that This Is Us is a huge success at a time when America's most popular shows tend to live on one end of the spectrum or the other: either the gruesome, violent, more serious side — think Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, or NBC's Chicago shows (Fire, PD, Med, and now Justice) — or straight-up comedy: think Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. (Yes, still.)
This Is Us, meanwhile, is pure, unadulterated schmaltz. The kids were conceived at a Steelers bar and are therefore diehard Steelers fans. When pre-teen Kate has her appendix out on Christmas Eve, mom Rebecca gives her "a magical Christmas branch" to hold on to. And every year, the family recreates the meal they had during a Thanksgiving road trip gone wrong as a way to reconnect. Cor-ny, amiright?! And I could probably write an entirely separate article about some of the most melodramatic one-liners, like the first episode quote from Dr. K, who delivered the triplets: "There's no lemon so sour that you can't make something resembling lemonade." Doesn't pack quite as much punch as Beyoncé's version, that's for sure.
Of course, this is not the first family drama to find success in tearjerking territory. NBC seems to have modelled This Is Us pretty closely on Parenthood, which ran from 2010-2015 (the posters for the series are almost identical), and family dramas like Brothers & Sisters and Transparent also hit home for viewers in similar ways. But This Is Us' use of touching flashbacks sets it apart; the storytelling device simultaneously makes us nostalgic for childhood and keeps us on the edge of our seats each week. The plot's motion back and forth through time might actually be the best part of this show. (That, and Sterling K. Brown. I'm convinced anyone who dislikes him, either as an actor or character, is simply not human.)
'This Is Us' is giving us all something fluffy to dive into, something so warm and comforting that we're willing to ignore its unapologetic mushiness.
The fact that so many of us are obsessed with a show that brims with lessons in love and inclusivity is particularly interesting right now, considering that Washington is basically sending us the exact opposite messages. Yet America's favorite show features a white couple raising a Black son, a woman struggling to accept her body and allow herself to be loved, and a family determined to persevere no matter what challenges they face. Creator Dan Fogelman has managed to craft a broad-ranging story that's progressive without being edgy, projecting a brand of core values that can appeal to everyone — no matter their political beliefs.
In fact, CNN entertainment writer Sandra Gonzalez points out that This Is Us has been steadily growing in viewership since before the election — which shows that our connection to the Pearson clan is much bigger than the divisiveness of our current political climate.
“There’s something in the show that keeps us grounded, because no one on this show is talking about politics,” Gonzalez says. “At its core, this is simply a show about a family, and that's a welcome break for all of us. Just like the characters, we all harden ourselves just to get through the days sometimes, so to come home and be given a green light to ignore any negativity and just feel something is lovely.”
Aha. So in a world where it's an increasingly difficult to find an escape, This Is Us is giving us all something fluffy to dive into, something so warm and comforting that we're willing to ignore its unapologetic mushiness. That is most definitely not something to be ashamed of, so I will forge ahead wearing my love for this show on my chest like a badge of pride, because it is exactly what I need — what we all need.
After all, this show is us. Cheesy pun intended.