By Peter Hummers on August 18, 2022
“Time flies when you’re having fun.”
“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me, other times I can barely see. Sometimes it occurs to me—what a long, strange trip it’s been!” (“Truckin’,” Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Robert Hunter)
Here are the major players in the epic Tralfamadorean prime-time soap opera This is Us (streaming here), about which I wrote last week. (Keep in mind, there are 18 main characters and 53 recurring. I’d love to see the characters’ bibles—what writers need to know about each character—on all of them. There must have been several “murder boards” in the writers’ rooms, too, detailing everybody’s connections with one another!)
“We’re their parents. We do the best we can. But at the end of the day what happens to them, how they turn out, that’s bigger than us.” (Jack Pearson)
The source. Jack Pearson marries Rebecca Malone in the Pittsburgh City Hall. He had met her after he returned from an especially traumatic experience in the service in Viet Nam; she was singing in a bar. He was blue-collar; she came from money, but they hit it off, hard. In due time, Rebecca becomes pregnant with triplets, and during a difficult delivery she loses one of the babies. Meanwhile a fireman brings in a newborn that had been abandoned at his station, and after a discussion with Rebecca’s doctor (Gerald McRaney, Deadwood), they agree to adopt him.
“My dad put on a tie every day because he had to. I put one on every day because I want to. It’s important you know that. Maybe I don’t run into burning buildings for a living, but to me, my work is challenging and exciting. I will not apologize for the fact that it’s hard to explain to people.“
In the inner city, aspiring poet William Hill believes his partner Laurel DuBois is dead from an overdose as EMTs work to revive her. He runs off with their newborn son, panics, and leaves him at a fire station. A fireman takes him to the hospital where he’s adopted by Jack and Rebecca Pearson, who have just lost one of their triplets in childbirth. Rebecca can’t seem to connect to her new, black, baby, and locates William, who is still grieving over Laurel and determined to clean up and start anew somewhere else. He suggests Rebecca keep and name his son Randall, after William’s favorite poet, Dudley Randall. Rebecca doesn’t tell Jack that she has met with William.
Randall, the adopted black son of a white suburban family, feels at home nowhere and throws himself into his schooling; this drive, along with his high intelligence, make him a star student. In spite of his general alienation, he bonds closely with his adopted family, and becomes a successful trader of weather derivatives on Wall Street, living with his wife and three girls (one of whom is adopted, herself) in northern New Jersey, until he tracks down and meets William, his birth father.
“The point is, I don’t know what we are. OK? That’s the truth. I don’t know what I think we are. I just know that I like the fact that there’s a ‘we’ for us to talk about.”
Kevin Pearson, handsome, athletic … and alcoholic, never had to work too hard for anything. Popular in school, a sports star who married his high-school sweetheart (for a while), he landed the starring role in the insipid but (and?) wildly successful sitcom The Manny, in which he played a male nanny, who removed his shirt at least once in every episode, a role that he came to resent when he began fancying himself a “proper” actor.
A lot of Kevin’s particulars remind me of Bojack Horseman. Strange, yes, but there it is. Like Bojack, he once had a hit sitcom; now he’s essentially alone, rambling around in a giant Hollywood estate, drinking too much and getting up to no good. Unlike Bojack, he has a measure of success with a subsequent movie, and has, as his assistant and general guardian angel, his sister Kate. Kevin and Kate remain close with Randall, across the country, whom they fully consider their brother, having been together from a few hours after birth, and they all are close to their surviving parent, in Pittsburgh. (Yes, a mild spoiler, but believe me, there’s so much going on in so many timelines, that no-one really leaves the show.) Kevin’s arc of redemption stands out among the other characters’, but he is not alone in having one.
“It’s always going to be about the weight for me… it’s been my story ever since I was a little girl. And every moment that I’m not thinking about it, I’m thinking about it. Like, will this chair hold me? Will this dress fit me? And if I ever get pregnant, would anyone ever notice? It’s just at the core of who I am, it’s just deep inside, and eight tequila shots can only mask that for a couple hours.”
Kate Pearson has inherited her mother’s musical talent, but experiences a similar alienation to Randall’s; she of course was not black, in a white family in a white suburb, but was always overweight, and found it hard to fit in with her peers, and popular depictions of beautiful women in the 1980’s didn’t help her. When the series opens, on her 36th birthday, she is alone, working as an assistant to her brother Kevin, and while she is beautiful, she is very overweight.
But she has the fierce love of her parents and siblings, a great sense of humor she seems to have inherited from Jack, and she is stronger than she thinks. She meets Toby Damon at a support group for people with eating disorders, and they have a fun but stormy romance, and are married. Toby has one of those wonderful and terrible senses of humor—which often makes it seem as if he’s trying too hard.
“It all just sort of fits somehow. And even if you don’t understand how yet, people will die in our lives, people that we love. In the future. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe years from now. I mean, it’s kind of beautiful, right? If you think about it, the fact that just because someone dies, just because you can’t see them or talk to them anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting. I think maybe that’s the point of the whole thing. There’s no dying. There’s no you or me or them. It’s just us.” (Kevin Pearson)
SEE ALSO: Stream On: This was Us, Part I
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)