In “This Is Us,” the Sentimentality Makes the Art
The popular network drama reframes sentimentality as the awareness of our humanity
Once, during a tense graduate school workshop, an older, venerable professor lambasted a student’s paper as being “too sentimental.” The student asked what the problem was with sentiment, to which the professor replied, “It’s not the sentiment. It’s the sentimentality.” These words were meant to settle the argument. Sentiment was fine; sentimentality—and the overabundance of unfiltered emotions it entailed—was not. Artists should be disciplined. Artists should be critical. Artists should be impartial, even about their own emotions, which should be interrogated, deconstructed, and sometimes outright dismissed. There was a clean-cut division between sentiment and sentimentality, which, as serious writers, we needed to understand.
I carried this notion with me for years as I tried to sharpen my rather nebulous definition of “high art.” It was a lesson that, in 2018, shaped an essay I published in Electric Literature about the NBC drama This Is Us. I was (and still am) a massive fan, but four years ago I simply did not consider the show high art. I felt its sentimentality precluded it from qualifying.
In 2022, I would like to retract my statement.
This Is Us does interrogate emotion; its artistic merit is because of, not in spite of, its sentimentality. The story dissects its softer side and emerges with a refreshingly non-cynical take on the consequences of staying on the sappy side of life.
For the uninitiated, This Is Us follows the lives of three siblings – Kevin, Kate, and Randall Pearson, known as the “Big Three” – and their mother, Rebecca. The show mostly takes place in the present, but each episode features flashbacks that directly link past events – both good and bad – to the people the Big Three have become today. This can be a weak point; themes are occasionally so heavy-handed even die-hard fans cringe. More often than not though, This Is Us delivers, the trajectory of how a given character got from Point A to Point B logically sound and emotionally resonate. It’s formulaic, but it makes for good TV, and This Is Us has never shied away from convention. Rather than dodging tropes that might attract the ire of critics, This Is Us embraces its status as a plain ole’ satisfying story.
When I first fell in love with This Is Us, my father had been diagnosed with late-stage idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and given a fairly bleak prognosis in terms of life expectancy. He was 61, not young, but also not so old, and one of the healthiest people I had ever seen—a remarkably dexterous sexagenarian who regularly out-ran and out-lifted me at the gym. The diagnosis was flabbergasting. I needed a show that helped me tap into my repressed grief, and This Is Us fit the bill. There are songs I can never listen to again without sobbing – “Our House,” “Moonshadow,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” and I’ll add “The Circle Game” to this list after the penultimate episode – but I never thought of This Is Us as self-reflective.
My father is, somewhat unbelievably, still alive—the recipient of a double-lung transplant—and yet the scope of my grief hasn’t shrunk. In fact, since around March of 2020, it has grown profoundly, and I probably don’t need to tell you why. My affection for This Is Us has evolved into outright obsession. As the show enters its final season, I spend hours each week reading the latest hot takes, overanalyzing AV Club reviews, and browsing subreddits dedicated to debating character motivations and dissecting subtle details for potential foreshadowing. In 2022, the show’s sentimentality began to feel deeper and smarter, more like a conscious artistic choice than the natural state of a soap-ish primetime family drama.
It’s not just the fans who are sentimental about the Pearsons. In-universe, the Pearsons are sentimental about themselves, have a habit of mythologizing their family’s history to the point of delusion. The foundation starts to crack during a storyline about Kevin’s stint in rehab, which climaxes with a showdown in family therapy during which the Pearsons directly confront the darker side of the late Jack Pearson’s legacy. When Kevin’s therapist asks Rebecca why she refuses to discuss Jack’s alcoholism, she defends herself by saying that she doesn’t want her husband’s memory tainted by focusing on “the only thing about him that wasn’t perfect.” Of course, viewers know that Jack – alcoholism aside – was never perfect. Here, we begin to see the sinister side of Rebecca’s sentimentality.
Maybe the most unsettling episode in recent history was season six’s “Saturday in the Park.” While most fans think of this as the nerve-racking saga of Kate’s blind toddler getting lost outside, I found the B-plot even more disturbing. Elementary-aged Kate, Kevin, and Randall lock their babysitter in the bathroom after she slights Kate, prompting a drunken Rebecca to pontificate about how beautiful it is that her children banded together. This is juxtaposed with a scene of an adult Kevin and Randall intruding on an argument between Kate and her husband, wholly inappropriate behavior given this is a nuanced conflict between two grown adults navigating deeply personal marital troubles. In this context, Rebecca’s monologue becomes more unnerving than uplifting. She’s teaching her children to enable one another, giving them sloppy justifications for their own bad behavior. As a viewer, there was a moment where I found myself thinking, “My God, what is wrong with this family?”
A lesser show would have left it at that. A lesser show would have let viewers linger in this dark headspace gawking at dysfunctional people glorifying their own dysfunction. This hypothetical dark, gritty version of This Is Us would serve only to deconstruct mawkish family dramas by smugly revealing the Man Behind the Curtain, teaching us a lesson about the fallibility of memory and the dangers of romanticizing the past.
Reader, I am so tired of watching that show.
Thank God This Is Us is smarter than that! Thank God This Is Us understands that the Man Behind the Curtain solved the ailments of those who sought his counsel even after being exposed as a fraud.
In my 2018 essay on This Is Us, I talked about Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of Didion’s 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo. I called the book “brazenly unsentimental”, which it is. However, at the time I erroneously took “unsentimental” to mean “anti-sentimental,” which Blue Nights is not. In the book’s second chapter, recounting her daughter’s wedding day, Didion notes Quintana made “sentimental choices”: cucumber and watercress sandwiches in memory of her sixteenth birthday party, leis in place of bouquets because of a childhood trip to Honolulu. After repeating “time passes” twice, Didion begins to speculate about what the phrase even means – “Could it be that I heard it more this way? Time passes, but not so aggressively that anyone notices? Or even, ‘Time passes, but not for me?’ Could it be that I never believed it?”
I recalled Didion’s words while watching “The Night Before the Wedding,” after Randall gives a frankly terrible speech that ends with, “In moments like this, when you’re around all your favorite people, celebrating a really special day, time does slow down ever so much.”
This Is Us, I’ll concede, does sometimes cross a threshold where its sentimentality negates its merit, morphing into the kind of story that likely turned my professor off sentimentality. Some of the analogies – a leaky faucet foreshadowing a failed marriage, new glasses a metaphor for distorted memories – feel a little too preachy. Most recently, an episode wrapping up Kevin’s love life turned what could have been a nuanced storyline about a later-in-life romantic reconciliation into the stuff of Hallmark movies. I thought “The Night Before the Wedding” was verging into this territory as Randall’s speech was not – as his wife tells him – “equal parts sexy and depressing.” It was poorly written and trite, but it turned out Randall knew he was spouting bullshit. The show takes a darker-than-expected turn when Randall brushes off his wife’s praise, saying, “Mom’s sick. I can see where it’s all headed now. And it’s all headed there so fast. What are you supposed to do with that?”
There is no satisfactory resolution here – another phrase Didion repeats throughout Blue Nights, especially in regards to what to do with her memories. In the New York Times Book Review, writer and critic Cathleen Schine calls Blue Nights “an elegy to the void,” a memoir written from the vantage point of a person well-aware that daylight always fades. Yes, even for you. Yes, even if you try to savor the moment so that time passes less aggressively. For Didion, Schine notes, memories do little more than leave her grappling with her daughter’s now painful immortality. Didion says “sentimental choices” with grief not as a rebuke, but because Quintana’s wedding is a memory she no longer wants to remember, a reminder of how inadequately she appreciated the moment when it happened. Didion has seen the void, has reached a point where sentimentality no longer serves her any practical purpose. When Randall stands on the cusp of this same space, his wife pulls him back. She responds to his rhetorical question with, “Only thing you can do, baby. You dance.”
Had I heard this line in one of the show’s weaker episodes, I would have gagged. It’s corny, it’s inadequate, it’s – god forbid – sentimental. But in this context it exemplifies This Is Us is at its best – those moments where the void squares off against relentless sentimentality. Sometimes, rose-colored glasses do little more than make the Pearsons ignore past trauma and fight their present demons bare-fisted. Other times, their pink-tinted world helps them at least attempt to adequately appreciate the moment, even if – eventually – they’ll realize that they didn’t, and that it all went by too fast, and that time passed for them despite believing, on some level, that it never would. There’s no satisfactory resolution to Randall’s crisis, which is why Beth’s response gets a pass. She would not have offered a better answer by virtue of being cynical. Here, feeding the delusion isn’t a maladaptive coping mechanism, but a way to give fleeting happiness some much-deserved brain space.
This Is Us knows its characters are guilty of romanticizing the past but the show is less interested in deconstructing its tropes and more interested in exploring why there’s a seemingly never-ending appetite for this particular brand of story. The narrative’s driving question is why—why are we sentimental creatures at all? Lately, I’ve been less interested in cynical narratives and more interested in stories that do not shy away from their own sensitivity. I am inundated with enough cruelty in reality. Why drag it into my stories?
Over the last two years, I have seen things I never thought I would see and am bracing to see worse in the future. I have seen relationships I thought were indestructible shatter. I have seen healthy, happy people either die or become severely debilitated due to COVID. I have seen politicians do little-to-nothing in response to an encroaching apocalypse, often rolling out more Draconian cruelty in response to the fallout of our present conditions. In Los Angeles, where I live, it is now functionally illegal to be unhoused. At the same time, I have gotten closer to the people with whom I’ve endured the last two years, and I’ve noticed our sentimentality about one another sometimes distorts reality. In our rapid-fire group chat messages, we’re all playing assigned roles, our personalities shoehorned into archetypes. We abandon some nuance, to be sure, but it’s comforting to create a nest of character types. It’s not all delusion. Whatever part one plays, the tropes we fill didn’t manifest from thin air, but came from very real aspects of our personalities. It’s an elevated state, a Platonic ideal we’re trying to emulate because mythologizing ourselves helps us appreciate what we have before it’s gone.
I take a cue from the Pearsons in this regard.
The show often makes its points with parallel narratives, and it bookends its first and last season to underscore one of its most vital themes. A story that spans generations shows how coping mechanisms hold different values over time. Sometimes, the Pearsons’ unabashed displays of emotion result in poor decisions and hurt feelings. Other times, it brings them closer, the reason I can think My God, what’s wrong with this family? while simultaneously loving them. In season one, we see the Pearsons sanitizing the memory of their late father in a dysfunctional fashion. In season six, we see them sanitizing Rebecca – who is dying of Alzheimer’s – in a more strategic way. What was unhealthy for the Big Three in their 30s serves a logical purpose in their 40s and 50s.
In season six’s “Taboo,” Rebecca gives an emotional speech on Thanksgiving night, commanding her children to forge ahead with their lives and be fearless. Rebecca is the Wise Old Matriarch here, but long-time viewers know she hasn’t always been the best mother. She has done some things – most notably, lying to Randall about his birth parents – that border on unforgivable. But she’s not a monster, and we’ve seen her children confront their issues with her, have watched them work things out as much as they possibly can. I feel less frustrated watching the Big Three sanctify their mother than I did watching them sanctify their father as Rebecca is about to die and they have an opportunity to say goodbye. Maybe this is the time to treasure her rather than focusing on her imperfections.
One of the most memorable speeches in This Is Us comes from a season one episode. After Rebecca’s stillbirth, Jack receives a life lesson from Dr. K, a kindhearted OB-GYN who delivers his own version of the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Dr. K extracts the adage’s fundamentals in a more true-to-life fashion, curtailing its more Pollyanna aspects as not to deny Jack his grief. Dr. K doesn’t tell Jack to make lemonade, but to make “something resembling lemonade,” a small but important distinction. He acknowledges that the quest for silver linings won’t save us from the void, but it might at least give us some cushioning.
I thought of the lemonade speech in the final half of season six, as we watch the Big Three act out their interpretation of Rebecca’s advice. The show could have ended on a dark note, Rebecca’s illness a catalyst for the Pearsons going their separate ways. Instead, the Big Three pursue their own versions of a happy ending in light of an unfathomable loss, making something resembling lemonade from their ruins. By shoehorning Rebecca’s untimely death into a life lesson of sorts, Kevin, Randall, and Kate lived their lives without her a little less fearfully.
I think what my professor missed in putting a firewall between sentiment and sentimentality is that one can interrogate one’s emotions without having to dismiss them. I no longer feel my connection to This Is Us precludes my ability to think critically about it. I no longer feel ashamed for loving its characters as much as I do, or for tearfully telling my fiancé once night that I felt proud of Kate Pearson like she was a real person. I no longer think sentimentality is a sign of intellectual weakness so much as a byproduct of understanding our mortality, and that any story delving into heavy themes runs the risk of becoming sentimental. This Is Us leans in, does not condemn or celebrate sentimentality, but instead presents it as a double-edged sword—both constricting and constructive, both illusory and grounding, neither folly nor virtue, but a simple fact of life.