Fam, we need to talk about This Is Us.
When the show premiered in September 2016, we all needed TV as an escape more than ever. The U.K. had stunned the world a few months earlier by voting to exit the European Union, and the U.S. presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was entering the home stretch. That’s when writer Dan Fogelman introduced us to the Pearson family, and a show that became synonymous with ugly crying.
I have never watched This Is Us, but I have an entire storyline made up in my head based solely on what I have gleaned from dramatic headlines. pic.twitter.com/o0eDAmHYeq
— Devan Coggan (@devancoggan) January 25, 2018
By episode seven, Donald Trump had been elected president—a sentence I still feel nauseated from typing—and the Pearsons had taken up a permanent place in our hearts and our Tuesday night schedules. As the news cycle got bleaker, watching This Is Us became a source of comfort, tackling real life issues such as the lasting impact of grief, the realities of living with addiction and the nuances of interracial adoption—working through each issue in a way that felt authentic, and also emotionally satisfying to watch. At work, we talked about how after days covering sexual assault, racism and politics, This Is Us gave us permission to sit in our feelings for an hour. It was like an unofficial form of therapy, a safe space to let it all out—ugly tears and all—so we could keep on keeping on.
Damn, I spoke too soon. Trump mocking Dr. Ford made me completely lose my shit.
So now #ThisIsUs is my reward for not destroying something.
— Resister Erica (@EricaLScott) October 3, 2018
“Crying definitely serves an emotional purpose. It’s a release from a buildup of feelings,” clinical psychologist Kristin Wynns told Mashable, noting that This Is Us follows a long string of popular dramatic tear-jerkers that includes Parenthood and Grey’s Anatomy. And listen, I am all about shows that are based in family drama. I binged Brothers and Sisters, wept with Parenthood and am a forever fan of Jane the Virgin. This Is Us built its fanbase on depicting a modern family, and struggles, that felt real—maybe because the the main theme of lasting grief came from an authentic place for the show’s creator, Fogelman.
“There is something cathartic in having a ‘good cry’ and, physiologically, crying releases stress hormones or toxins from the body. So it’s good for us!” Wynns told Mashable. And I agree. We needed that outlet and I truly did love the first season (which cleaned up during award season) and most of the second. When my colleagues came for This Is Us, criticizing the sappy storylines as trash TV, I staunchly defended the show. But three years later, This Is Us feels like it will do anything for a tear.
In nine episodes aired so far, there have been storylines about post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, body image, sexual assault, infertility, depression, sexual orientation, poverty, racism, foster care, adoption, political upheaval and unemployment. It is A LOT. And while previous seasons had numerous tough storylines, for Season 3 it feels like This Is Us writers are running down a list of modern struggs and ticking them off one by one just for the heck of it. What was special about this show in the beginning—aside from its timing—was that it took time to delve into an issue, showing it from different perspectives and demonstrating the lasting impacts of certain traumas. In Season 3, these traumas are reduced to punchy one-liners, intended to shock audiences and spur speculation about plot developments.
For instance, at the end of Season 2, we met Beth’s badass cousin Zoe, who we soon learn will be Kevin’s new love interest for Season 3. Predictably, since Zoe is a secondary character (i.e. not a Pearson), we don’t get much of her backstory—until the very last moments of the seventh episode. In a few quick lines, Zoe tells Kevin that as a child she was sexually assaulted by her father. It was a huge revelation, but then we didn’t hear a single thing about Zoe or her experience in any of the following episodes. Instead, This Is Us moved on to introduce other storylines, like Tess’s sexuality. Tick and tick.
Perhaps that’s why This Is Us has seen a recent decline in viewership. The Season 3 premiere received considerably lower ratings than Season 2 and the show’s lowest mid-season finale had roughly 9 million viewers tuning in, compared to 10.9 million in 2017. (That said, it is still easily one of the most successful shows on TV—though other v. emotional shows like New Amsterdam and A Million Little Things entered the competition this year.)
What first appealed to me about This Is Us was that it didn’t stick to the conventional formula. It jumped back and forth in time, explored issues in ways that I hadn’t yet seen on screen, and really dedicated time and nuance to relatable real-life challenges. It was different. But Season 3 solidified a This Is Us formula where the show drops pandering hints for an hour only to reveal a few select details in rapid-fire succession during the final segment of the episode. The show is starting to no longer feel like “us”—instead, it just feels emotionally manipulative.