For weeks I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I adore NBC’s “This Is Us” so much. It’s not just the Ken Olin reflection of “thirtysomething” of twenty-something years ago; it’s a deep visceral feeling that it’s TV that we truly need right now. Two simultaneous conversations refocused my thinking – one was a Facebook comment thread in which friend Jenni commented that “This Is Us” is a show about adoption, and the other was a long phone call with my sister, happily recalling the small screen families with whom we grew up: The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. The plate of shrimp turned all the way around when I remembered an early first season Partridge Family episode in which Danny believes he was adopted (and yes, I checked the air date — March 12, 1971, precisely 46 years earlier).
“This Is Us” works because it echoes the same risks, themes and family situations, recast forty years later, as the shows we loved the most as tweens.
Shirley Partridge was a widow. The Brady Bunch were the original blended family. Danny thought he was adopted. The Patridge Family, especially in its last season, dealt with women’s liberation, religion, the precursor to Title IX sports equality, gender roles, aging, subtle racial bias (when the Patridge Family and the Temptations bookings are switched) and the strong nuclear bond of the non-nuclear family. The Brady Bunch dealt in simpler fare: sibling rivalry, respect, dignity in failure. Put this television into the context of the early 1970s: a country reeling from racial tension and social schism around Vietnam, the collected after images of Woodstock, JFK, MLK, Nixon, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. Like “thirtysomething” which was essentially a comedy with serious family and professional relationship undertones, our 1970s family comedies stepped up to present difficult (for the time) themes. We were just slightly younger than the lead characters of each series, looking up to them as fictional older siblings and idealized role models.
When we watch “This Is Us”, then, we are transposed twice in time – we are older than the Pearson kids in the 1970s timeline equivalent of our TV days, and older than their current ages in the forward timeline. We are now the slightly older, perhaps wiser siblings to our TV characters. Having navigated teenage and adult years we see “This Is Us” as validation that our issues with parents, family structure, rivalry, pressure, perfection, friends and extended family are universal, and maybe just maybe we successfully navigated them and the “Us” refers to the characters as it reflects the audience.