In just ten episodes, NBC’s This Is Us has captured the attention and emotions of viewers across the country. Counting three days of delayed viewership, 14.5 million people watched the mid-season finale, which aired during a month that is often unkind to TV series numbers. If there were ever a question about the impact of this show, it’s quite clear now.
So what is it about the show that makes it so intriguing? NBC is known for this kind of family drama — everyday scenarios, sad moments peppered with comedy, multiple generations navigating complicated relationships and a changing world.
Parenthood and Friday Night Lights are popular examples of this, but with less impressive viewership: Parenthood’s most-watched episode in the first season received 8.1 million viewers while Friday Night Lights’ first season averaged 6 million viewers. In the winter finale — its most successful episode — This Is Us received a live viewership of 10.95 million. The comparison is even more shocking in light of reports that TV viewership is decreasing year over year among the 18-49-year-old demographic.
So what makes This Is Us stand out? Coincidentally, it seems that the show has included just enough characters who "stand out" themselves — the series celebrates and confronts difference at a time when its American audiences are grappling with the same tough topics.
Character development is key
Parenthood (a point of comparison for This Is Us), made slightly simpler attempts at this: Max had Asperger’s Syndrome, Crosby had an interracial family and, in a strange twist — not unlike a recent one on This Is Us — Hattie came out as a lesbian. But aside from Max’s storyline, the show did little to confront the ways that these differences could alter how the character interacted with the world.
This Is Us started off with a pretty strong level of intrigue: at the end of the first episode, it became clear that the pregnant couple were parents to the trio of present-day adults. After that kind of beginning — and with outside knowledge that Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia are series regulars — it’s tough to resist watching the next episode, wanting to see how the writers will weave the flashbacks in with the current storyline.
It’s probably a different moment for everyone, but when the kids do their “Big three!” schtick; or when you find out William and Rachel always knew each other; or when young Randall sneaks away to play with the black kids at the pool — at some point it’s clear there’s no abandoning this show and this family. Not only does it grab audiences by the heartstrings, but it also introduces so many real issues that viewers begin to feel both empathy and kinship with the characters.
Let’s talk about race
Too often in family dramas like this one, there’s an episode or two that engage in an obvious and isolated race conversation. On Parenthood, it was when one of Crosby’s artists used the N-word in front of his biracial son. For the rest of the episode, Crosby was consumed with concern over how to explain something to his son that he didn’t understand himself. By the next episode, the moment was all but forgotten.
On This Is Us, Randall’s ethnicity — and that of his black family — is constantly present. His wife is a strong black woman, his kids have hair that’s tough to brush through, and there is evidence of skilled code-switching. Rather than having a big race conversation that minimizes black characters’ cultural differences, This Is Us does something better: It somehow captures the feeling of a black show inside of a show with mainstream appeal (aka a largely white show).
Portraying blackness on a white show
Mainstream dramas, if they introduce characters of color at all, may either use the “I don’t see color” approach or address racial difference through the eyes of the white main character. In stark contrast, black shows generally center on black characters, with the intricacies of blackness (or sometimes, the stereotypes) acting as central themes of the show. While both of these methods demonstrate realities in a country that still experiences a great deal of racial separation, it does nothing to address the real ways that racial groups collide. It certainly does nothing to prepare its viewers for a future where most of the U.S. population will have multiracial families.
By placing a black son in an all-American, white family during the '70s, This Is Us presents blackness — and other kinds of difference — as a complex and ongoing experience. At the same time, it presents a black man as a human who deserves all the love and support that two parents and two siblings can possibly give — not in spite of his blackness, but because of it.
In a time when a white man is considered the enemy of difference, This Is Us presents audiences with one who loves his black son unconditionally, as if he has the same blood running through his veins. In a time when the black man is painted as the criminal, the drain on the system, the thug who objectifies women, This Is Us shows one who is the most stable and loving person in his family.
It’s NOT a show about race. It’s a show about life. Black people have known forever that while our blackness is part of what defines us, it is also not the whole picture. Finally we have a show that invites amazing white characters — and viewers — to be part of that reality. This Is Us is successful, not because it’s about race, but because it’s personal and it’s real. And those are two things that might bring everyone a bit closer to understanding one another.