The pilot opens with a repetitive melody: fast-paced finger-picking on an acoustic guitar. Somehow it feels comforting. Familiar, even.
The show is called “This is Us,” and the song is “Death with Dignity” by Sufjan Stevens. It’s perfectly fitting for a story about life and death — but mostly life.
The first shot is a glimpse into the Pearson home. There is a white and yellow, vaguely retro rug that is still rolled up. An open suitcase sits atop one of many cardboard boxes. One of them has a message scrawled in black marker: “Family Photos ’75-’79.”
As the melody continues, you meet a pregnant woman and her mostly naked husband in their bedroom. It’s Rebecca and Jack Pearson, and it happens to be Jack’s birthday.
The scene shifts several times as the rest of the main cast is introduced. Kate is a woman struggling to lose weight as she closes the refrigerator door on her birthday cake. Randall is a successful businessman who is greeted with a cake of his own from singing coworkers. Kevin is an actor in a sitcom who feels that he should have achieved more success by today, his thirty-sixth birthday.
In fact, Jack, Kate, Randall, and Kevin have all just turned thirty-six.
NBC’s Golden Globe-nominated “This is Us” is a little over halfway through its first season and has been renewed for two more. The show airs on Tuesdays at 9:00 P.M. EST, and it may be the best show on television. In the first episode, “This is Us” presents itself as a story about people who happen to share the same birthday, and it’s believable for a while. In reality, it’s a story about family and love. It’s beautiful, vivacious, and sorrowful. But what makes the show particularly noteworthy is that it is an excellent depiction of conservative values — almost Christian, even. It’s hard to imagine this is intentional. It’s just a good story, and it has good values.
The show portrays a married mom and dad with kids as the ideal family. Jack and Rebecca have their fights, but they love each other and work through them. They are faithful and in love. Randall is married to Beth, the mother of his two daughters and the woman of his dreams. In time, Kate finds the man of hers. Kevin, on the other hand, consistently sleeps around, seemingly unable to commit to a relationship and unhappy because of it.
In addition, “This is Us” makes an incredible statement about the value of life at any stage. It’s an inherently pro-life show without ever mentioning abortion. The Pearsons — a white couple — adopt a black baby who was abandoned at a fire station by his drug-addicted father following the death of his mother in childbirth. There is no question that this baby’s life has value, though prior to his birth, he was what some in the real world might call a perfect candidate for an abortion. After all, he’s unwanted — except by Jack and Rebecca.
“The moment I saw you, I knew you were my boy,” Jack tells his child. “You weren’t a choice… you were a fact.”
The show handles questions of race refreshingly well. The two white parents work hard to teach their black son that his race doesn’t make him different. He’s their son. He’s a Pearson. That’s what makes him who he is, not his skin. The only real acknowledgments they have that he might be unique come when they seek out a barber who can cut his hair well, or make sure he spends time around black children and adults as well as white. Although the young Pearson starts to wonder about his birth father, he never loses his love and appreciation for the man who raised him.
The show departs from a traditional conservative narrative with its abrupt inclusion of a bisexual man in a relationship with another man. It’s a twist that feels like the writers panicked after suddenly realizing they had forgotten to include an LGBT character.
Nonetheless, so far in the series, his sexuality has not been much of a plot point. Maybe that’s intentional. He’s not used to make a political statement. The writers just hope you believe this is who he is. Interestingly enough, the most impactful parts of the story revolve around his son’s confusion as he struggles to feel comfortable knowing that his father loves a man.
“This is Us” feels like a true story. The characters are easy to love, easy to laugh with, and easy to cry with. The acting is phenomenal, and the soundtrack delights. “Some Day Soon” by Alexi Murdoch and Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” are particularly charming and fit the story brilliantly.
But the timeline of the story is a funny and clever thing. For fear of spoiling the twist, suffice it to say that the unique way this story is told is almost undetectable at first. Then someone lights up a cigarette in a hospital, and the thought occurs that maybe the setting isn’t what — or when — it seems. Maybe this is not a story about strangers who happen to share a birthday. Maybe there is a connection — something of an “us.” You’ll just have to watch and see.