Over the past six years, millions have watched with rapt attention and melting hearts while a fictional American family has navigated addiction, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, a parent’s premature death and, despite their earnest intentions, their recurring inability to live up to the best versions of themselves.
They’ve been doing it in a way that has challenged and inspired the audience – a way that has brought joy amid the copious tears.
As "This Is Us" broadcasts its series finale Tuesday, its multitude of fans are savoring the show and drawing all they can from it. Reruns notwithstanding, we’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Pearson family tries to do what's right
I wish all of us could be as irrepressibly decent as the Pearsons. "This Is Us" has been a balm by virtue of its showcasing the characters’ determination to be good and do right. What a contrast to the behavior so prominently on display in politics and on so many other popular shows.
Not that the family members are preening goody-goodies. Take Kevin. Endowed with abundant talent and movie-star looks – the character is, in fact, a movie and TV star – he repeatedly stumbles in his personal life. He is haunted by his father’s death. He struggles with alcoholism. He breaks his marital vows. He suffers through a series of failed relationships and an impulsiveness that lures him into saying and doing things he regrets.
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Kevin is this way not because he is irredeemably bad but because he has a raw idealism about what is good and fair, about how things ought to be, and he has impossibly high standards for himself and the world.
As he ages, thankfully, Kevin becomes more adept at aligning his ideals and behavior and more accepting of the less-than-perfect. He gets solid in sobriety and finally – finally! – ends up back in the arms of the love of his life. In sum, Kevin grows. So can we.
A big reason Kevin is Kevin, of course, is his dad: the iconic Jack Pearson, the walking-talking definition of “mensch.” Overcoming a rocky childhood and his own alcoholic demons, Jack is the husband and father everyone wishes they had. He is warm, selfless, firm in his convictions and graceful in living them out. He always knows what to say or do when the kids are flailing and his wife, Rebecca, needs a lift.
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Jack's heroic goodness is his fatal flaw. In a moment of ill-advised valor, after he has already saved his wife and kids from the fire engulfing the family home, he rushes back inside to rescue the dog. He dies from cardiac arrest caused by smoke inhalation, and his absence looms over his kids’ adult lives in the show’s primary timeline.
Rebecca is, of course, devastated. But she slowly finds her way back to life and love after Jack.
Rebecca's journey told with sensitivity
In her more senior years, Alzheimer’s finds her.
Has there ever been such an unflinching yet sensitive portrayal of Alzheimer’s in popular entertainment? As one whose own mother has Alzheimer’s, I have found this storyline uncomfortably accurate. The forgetfulness that begins to appear. The initial denials that anything is wrong. The examination and diagnosis. The inexorable worsening of the disease to the point where your parent is still alive yet in a real sense gone.
But love lives on, in “This Is Us” as in the many real-life families going through Alzheimer’s. While she remains in possession of her faculties, Rebecca faces her disease bravely and exhorts her kids not only to keep living but to go all out for their dreams.
The Pearson siblings, middle-age now, find their bonds deepened through the slow-motion family trauma as they team up to support their mother and one another.
As one who is often disappointed by human behavior, including my own, I am heartened that "This Is Us" commands such a following, topping all other scripted TV dramas in the 2021-22 season despite a dearth of smash-bang action. It says something good about the culture that we are drawn to a story about conscientious people trying to do the right things and to love with all their hearts.
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The show has detractors, of course. Among them are some religious folks who decry the culture’s growing secularity. Is it not a thumb in their eye to see such a conspicuous absence of religion in a top-rated TV show that engages life’s deepest meanings? My (naive) response: Can’t we all find reassurance in seeing the quest for goodness, in the show as in real life, going forward even where conventional religion is not the framework?
I am not so naive as to suggest that “This Is Us” is the cure to society’s ills. Our public life has grown even coarser and more riven by conflict over the series’ run.
Alas, parents Jack and Rebecca and siblings Kate and Kevin and Randall have not brought the country back together.
That’s too much to ask of any popular entertainment. What a TV show can do, however, and what “This Is Us” has done so admirably, is capture something essential about life in a way that captivates and moves us. In a way that inspires us to look in the mirror.
Is “This Is Us” who we are? May we be worthy of the compliment.
Tom Krattenmaker, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, writes on religion and values in public life and directs communications at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” Follow him on Twitter: @TKrattenmaker
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'This Is Us' series finale: The Pearsons inspired us to love amid pain