On paper, This Is Us has all the staples of the perfect, corny family drama that networks like NBC love to exploit: saccharine speeches about family solidarity, impromptu monologues about inner demons, and a sappy instrumental soundtrack.
And so far, it's working. As the show wraps up its fourth season, the intergenerational, multiracial, and flashback-loving Pearson family still captures millions of Americans' attention every Tuesday. At the center of the show's pull is the magnetic Sterling K. Brown, who's garnered an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Randall Pearson, the adopted black son of white parents Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Kate (Mandy Moore). Randall and his outspoken wife, Beth (played by the lovely Susan Kelechi Watson) bring dry humor and vulnerability to discussions about anxiety disorders, child welfare, racial politics, and, as last week's episode highlighted, interracial adoption.
Brown is aware of his character's significance to those at the margins of mainstream representation, particularly those of us who aren't white or neurotypical or raised by our biological parents. "I just love there's a sort of diaspora of African American representation," said Brown. "'This Is Us' is all about family and all about connection, and the world of the show continues to expand over the years. But it really does my heart good when, every once in a while, the show becomes very focused on the African American experience through Randall's family, through these other families that we've added to the fold, and they're not the same." Indeed, last season writer Faye McCray of blackgirlnerds published, "Just Admit It, NBC: 'This Is Us' Is (Almost) a Black Show," in which she praised the (sadly rare) realistic depiction of a black family. (And that was before Randall defended himself against someone erasing his black experience just because he was raised in a white family, asserting, "Don't get it twisted, sis. I wake up every day to a headscarf and coconut oil. I'm married to a black queen, not that it's any of your business." Go Randall, you hard-working, bespectacled, anxiety-ridden nerd who became a proud man and king of dad jokes!).
Aside from giving the show incentive to diversify its writing team (the show's white creators added three black writers to the final team of 10 to "get a bigger voice in [race-related] stories"), Randall also shows that mental illness can look strong, refined, and put-together, even on the cusp of a mental breakdown, of which he's had two. Brown said of his character's battle with anxiety, "I felt a responsibility because of people in my family who have anxiety or different mental disorders, I've been witness to it, and it's important to put it out there in a way that releases the stigma of it."
That brings us to season four, when the flashbacks to the Pearson triplet's adolescence coincide with Randall's own children's adolescence. Among the many growing pains, Randall's seen his oldest daughter experience a panic attack for the first time. He silently stewed at the kitchen table while jouncing his knee, while Beth looked on with the knowledge that fidgeting is Randall's tell-tale sign of his own anxiety. When he finally spoke, he recounted to his wife that he grew up without sharing any biological connections to his family, so it's particularly difficult to accept that he's passed on what he perceives to be his worst trait to his children. After the episode aired, Brown tweeted about the importance of mental health: "Tess had a panic attack. It runs in the family as we all know and have seen with Randall," he wrote. "Let's open up a dialogue about mental health. How do you navigate the sometimes overwhelming stressors/anxieties in your life?"
The incident was also the first time Randall opened up about being an adoptee whose only living biological relatives are his own children: It's a strange inevitability for all adoptees. As Vulture's Rebecca Carroll wrote in her piece "What This Is Us Gets Right About Being a Black Kid in a White Family," "Adoptees often need to make families that are of our bodies, and we need to make people who look like us, because it's a lot to be the only one in the room, in the family, the town, at the pool, for your entire childhood and youth." As a black adoptee in a white family herself, Carroll illuminates one of the show's most daunting tasks: how to portray interracial adoption accurately without the Hallmark platitudes, without invalidating mixed race families' bonds with each other, and without erasing the reality of being a person of color in America.
After all, the unquestionable throughline of This Is Us is that Jack and Kate are likeable but flawed people, whether in flashbacks to their youth or many years into their marriage. Still, Carroll succinctly writes, "...But add to that the historic and presumed assertion that white people can, will, and should decide the fate of black people, and love is just not enough. Obviously, there are exceptions, but white parents raising black kids often think they know what it means to raise black kids — 'If I say I'm raising a black child, I'm raising a black child, and he/she is mine,' as Rebecca later intones—when it's so much more fraught than that for the children."
So what This Is Us is finally addressing, beginning in the episode "The Club" and reaching daring heights in "The Dinner and the Date," is how 12-year-old Randall first realized that his parents' love has limitations. In season four, we've met Mr. Lawrence, the only black teacher at Randall's elite private school, with whom he's closely bonded and from whom he eagerly accepts reading recommendations, like James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. When Randall tries to articulate how valuable these black authors are to him, his father doesn't understand. "Jack sees his son. He doesn't see color," Ventimiglia said. "But it's important to note that, as Randall said in a previous episode, 'If you don't see color, you don't see me.' As wonderful as it is that Jack just sees this young boy who grows into the young man that he loves ... he also comes to understand that there are things that he can't teach through experience, there's things that he can't show his son."
This is Us - Season 1 Ron Batzdorff/NBC
But This Is Us doesn't simplify the problem or completely absolve Rebecca and Jack of their ignorance. Jack's first impulse is to compare his past struggles with classism with the systemic racism Randall is going to have to face his entire life. After he realizes the deep flaws of that analogy, Jack decides to invite Mr. Lawrence and his wife over for an incredibly tense but brutally honest dinner. Ultimately, Jack confronts his own feelings of intimidation and insecurity that Mr. Lawrence stirs, because, as Jack struggles to articulate, "I can't teach my son how to be black." Jack's struggles to even articulate what it means to be a person of color lead him to a hint of revelation: He can't know what it's like, so what he can do is listen and learn, alongside Randall as he navigates his own self-discovery.
So for interracial adoptees like Carroll (and me), it's comforting, strange, and refreshing, however sad, to see this discomfort being aired on the fifth most popular show on TV, before 12 million weekly viewers. In fact, scriptwriter Kay Oyegun wants to bring this conflict (originally conceived by creator Dan Fogelman) to life this season. "I'll be very frank: A lot of white people feel uneasy talking about race," she said. "Black people talk about race quite often, mostly because it's something that's a part of our daily lives. I think one of the things that we wanted to do with this episode was make it OK to talk about race, was to destigmatize, normalize and begin a fluid conversation about differences, about similarities, and about where and how we can find — not even common ground, there's just ground, right?"
But all of that underlying conflict culminates in Randall's decision in the season's penultimate episode. He outright emotionally manipulates his elderly mother, who's just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, into entering a clinical trial. That means being separated from her family when she may only have precious little time left. "I've been a good son," Randall repeats. "I've never asked you for anything." This comes after telling Rebecca that he hasn't resented her for lying to him about his biological father. It's a scene so well-acted by Moore and Brown that die-hard fans of the show were divided by Randall's uncharacteristic pragmatism: He says he needs his mother to do this, regardless of whether she wants to or not.
"I've already lost three parents," he tells his therapist before calling Rebecca, referring to his biological parents and Jack. "I know that losing my mother would break me. I can't lose her. I will do anything to keep that from happening." After four seasons of Randall fortifying himself against his buried issues because he saw himself as the pillar of the family, he carefully orchestrates to whom and when he shows his insecurities in order not to be hurt again.
Does Randall's complicated past as an interracial adoptee justify the manipulation? What's the ultimate cost of Rebecca's sacrifice?
The season four finale of This Is Us airs Tuesday, March 24.