Redemption and ‘This Is Us’

Is it just our household that religiously watches This Is Us on Channel Ten at the moment (NBC in America). Not only do we gather on the couch every week, but we are often moved to tears by the unfolding drama about a family that is told, cross-generationally from a different perspective every week.

Granted, it can border on melodrama from time to time, but the central conceit of the TV series and the reason why it has viewers eschewing their binge-watching ways and waiting patiently every week, is that it is about hope. Hope that lies in familial bonds.

The show follows Jack Pearson, his wife, Rebecca, and their kids: Kevin, Kate, and adoptee Randall. In each episode, viewers see the beginnings of the Pearson family, learning about Jack and Rebecca’s early marriage and the kids’ childhoods. Simultaneously, viewers discover how the kids are handling life as young adults and what has happened to them and their parents 36 years after their births.

The show has many strengths, but this subtle time-hopping element is one of its most charming features. This is primarily because it reveals, through each time period that love is what keeps the family together, through thick and thin, marital revelations and children learning from their parents.

Beginning with the births of the triplets in the 1980’s the Pearson’s life is not without its tragedy. The reason Randall is adopted is because the third triplet — Kyle — didn’t survive childbirth.

Much of the drama of the show is triggered by the loss of Kyle and does in fact seem to reverberate through each episode. But every episode is compelling and moving, often for very different reasons.

But one answer may be that This Is Us happened upon a simple, important truth about redemption: It often takes time. Viewers are given the gift of time compression, of watching a narrative arc resolve itself in two different decades. We learn that one character lies not out of carelessness or malice, but out of fear that the truth will rob her of her child for a second time. Another character works tirelessly and flawlessly because he has created a habit out of earning acceptance from an unforgiving world. Another fails his romantic interests because he is in love with the one woman who won’t love him back. These contexts soften us toward these characters.

Time creates empathy and understanding, and, at times, fosters love.

In Corinthians we are counselled by Paul to put away childish things and gain adult understanding. This truth is illustrated powerfully in the narrative arc of This Is Us. The younger version of this family cannot be faulted for their youthful inexperience. The burdens each character carries can lead them to do things that require they be laid down and moved through to a greater understanding of our place in the world.

Viewers are compelled to watch these characters not because they struggle, but because we want to see them overcome their difficulties. We want resolution for the issues each character faces.

On the day that his triplets were born, Jack told the doctor that only good things would happen. Given the narrative arc of the show we see in flash forward and backward that often our hopes and dreams are realised in ways we cannot realise. As Jack looked at his panicked wife, squared his eyes in determination, and asked her to trust him, to know that the impeding moments of risk and fear would resolve well.

As we witness this first episode unfolding we could interpret this scene as wishing thinking, but ultimately Jack does see a truth that will stretch beyond the confines of his children’s birthday: Love demands trust. And for each of his children that truth has been demonstrated throughout their lives.

As Amanda Wortham notes in ChristianityToday, This Is us “requires faith beyond what we can see and measure, and confidence that, no matter how dire the circumstances, those who love us and whom we love will work together for good. The good things that happen to Jack are bigger than his hopes. His family will be more beautiful than he can dream. The ending may not what Jack and Rebecca would have predicted, but the faith and love they exhibit holds them up through the coming tragedy and into the beautiful redemption that follows.”

Like Jack, we want only good things to happen today—and like Jack, that is precisely what will happen, when God gives us eyes to see.

This Is Us is now showing on Channel Ten in Australia

Adrian Drayton

Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film critic and commentator on culture for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations about faith and culture. He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.