As NBC’s This is Us enters its second season, rival networks, TV critics and fans are still debating what it is that makes the show so popular. The latest consensus, among the cast at least, seems to point towards the show’s aspirational nature.
“[Audiences] want to see themselves in a realistic setting, and also get that wish fulfillment experience of ‘wow, I can have a family like that. I can be a father like that. I can be a brother like that. I can be a mother like that,’” commented Pearson patriarch Milo Ventimiglia recently on the show’s success.
What Ventimiglia says is no doubt correct, but for many it’s the first part of that comment that will resonate more so than the last. We may aspire to Pearson family values, but when we tune into This is Us we care less about hoping to see ourselves in the Pearsons, and more about seeing how the Pearsons are like us.
While it’s the all important 18-49 year old demographic (and the ability of advertisers to target this group) that ultimately calls the shots on show renewals, it’s perhaps those in the upper end of this bracket who will most get the show, and feel that the lives on screen offer a sort of yard stick against which they can secretly measure the successes and failures of their own familial relationships. After all these are the people who have been married, and perhaps divorced, who have children of their own, and who have suffered through life’s most unfair moments — perhaps the death of a parent, or parents, the crushing of long-held but ultimately unfulfilled or unrealistic dreams, the stark realities of raising a family, the feeling of always teetering on the edge of chaos, and the unrelenting pressures of working for the man. It’s that grounded sense of realism, that feeling of ‘Look, we’re all in this together. You know people like this. This could be you. This could be me,’ that keeps This is Us on the rails, and keeps fans coming back for more.
This season the show is working a storyline exploring Jack Pearson’s alcoholism, and while the internet is ablaze with questions and theories on the exact date of Jack’s looming death, the show continues (for the most part) to ignore that particular smoking gun in favor of poignant low key realism on a weekly basis. There is no doubt Jack’s drinking story will be handled beautifully. We will probably all cry. A lot. We love a flawed hero, after all. But how well are other characters on the show being served? And would we love a flawed matriarch just as much?
We may never get to find out, because This is Us seems to be afraid to go there.
This week the show takes another crack at peeling back the complicated layers of Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) relationship with daughter Kate (Chrissy Metz). If you’ve been scratching your head over the distance between these two characters and the reasoning behind it, then I’m right there with you.
In fairness to both characters, it is true that previous episodes have shown how Kate felt lost in her mother’s shadow. It’s also been hinted that Kate felt she could never measure up to the beautiful, talented and confident Rebecca — an idea that will be revisited in the October 3 episode.
“A Manny Splendored Thing” will bring up unresolved conflicts for Kate, who will reveal feeling criticized by her mother (A feeling every woman has had at least once in her life), and having a sense that Rebecca is less proud of her achievements and more secretly sorry for her failures. But it’s a moment that seems to come out of left field, and will no doubt leave some viewers wondering at the sudden shift in tone.
Does Rebecca feel sorry for Kate? Does she wish her daughter had turned out to be a skinny, confident version of herself? We really don’t know for sure because Rebecca Pearson seems to have no observable shortcomings that could provide a clue. She is beautiful, smart, kind, considerate, wise and optimistic — the perfect TV mom, with no flaws attached. But if she truly is a mom with no observable foibles, then that means Kate’s observations are not valid, and that makes Kate herself an unreliable witness to her own past experiences. It would also be a disservice to both characters.
Rebecca is not the only female character who is subject to being viewed through this lens of ‘Momification.’ See also Randall’s wise and forbearing wife Beth, and Kevin’s long suffering ex-wife Sophie, both of whom exist as a human salve for their men’s anxieties and neuroses. These perfect creatures provide their male counterparts with something wonderful to react against, or rage at, or apologize to, but they make for confusing antagonists in their own right. Place them in a moment in which they are no longer the foil but the contender and we are left, as my father used to describe, watching a game of handball against a haystack. For every accusation and criticism lobbed against Rebecca (and you’ll see a few in the Oct. 3 instalment) we should at least see some manner of resistance — or even acknowledgement — from the accused, but we don’t because that uglier but more human aspect of Rebecca’s character remains unwritten.
But even if the writers decide not to pen a lengthy two-sided, knock-down argument (I’m not altogether sure that’s something audiences would even like to see), we should at least have previous anecdotal evidence from which to base our own opinion.
“That’s right. Rebecca is a little over-critical, now that you mention it!”
“No way. Kate has it all wrong. It’s not Rebecca’s fault. It’s her own insecurities at play!”
But in the case of Rebecca Pearson versus the world, there is no alternative view to be considered by the audience. There are no foibles. No darker tendencies. Nothing but the perfect wife and mother on display each week, and notably, no comeback from Rebecca as she fights her corner, or acquiesces gracefully. Because how could there be?
Perhaps then the problem is not how real Rebecca Pearson is allowed to be on screen, but how real any woman is really allowed to be on TV. And in particular mothers.
The image of the perfect, coiffed 1950’s housewife and mother is little more than a meme generator these days – a fun way to subvert a stereotype by adding an alcohol reference and passing it around on Facebook to your female friends. However Mommy culture is as prevalent in the US today as it ever was. Look no further than the bevy of modern TV advert moms all dressed in their asexual uniforms of non-threatening pastels and button-down shirts, advertising everything on TV from drain cleaner to photo books for proof.
TV moms pull double duty – not only conforming to the standard but setting the tone for what other moms should aspire to – grace, patience, perseverance, humor, warmth, and above all, acceptance. TV moms don’t go off the rails, have bad habits, make terrible mistakes, or bad choices. Their role is to support the characters who do, like Jack and Randall and Kevin.
When I was 7 my mother bailed on my moment in the spotlight during the school play to go outside for a cigarette. I was crushed, and if I’m being honest, I still am a little, to this day. When I got home I asked her about it, figuring there must have been some really big reason for her absence. But no. She just really really wanted a cigarette, figured she’d be back in time, and screwed up. On TV the Mom never misses the school play. It’s always the Dad who arrives late, looking sheepish, only to be greeted by the thankful, teary-eyed faces of his family.
Thank goodness then for the complicated, insecure, sexy, snarky, ambitious Kate Pearson, who may be the only female character on This is Us who fully represents what it means to be a real woman — not because of her full size but because of how fully imperfect she is allowed to be.
If you’re struggling to see why Kate could find fault with her perfect mother this week, the reason might not lie in Kate’s insecurities, but rather in the fact we have yet to see what’s lurking beneath Rebecca Pearson’s shiny exterior that might make for a more fully human connection between these two characters.
If we can enjoy Jack’s current flawed hero storyline, then we can certainly make room for Rebecca’s.
Going forward, if This is Us is going to do justice to any story that unboxes Kate’s mommy issues, then they will have to allow Rebecca Pearson to unleash a few demons of her own. This is supposed to be us, after all.