The second season finale of the hit NBC TV show, This Is Us, aired on Tuesday night. This post may contain mild spoilers.
The American man has a storied history. The stereotypical 1950s American man gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home at night, eats dinner, prepared by his doting wife, then retires to his arm chair with a cigar and a newspaper for the rest of the evening. Various sectors of society take this stereotype and find a million solutions to its weaknesses, ranging from adding spiritual shepherding duties, including disciplining children, to equal distribution of both domestic and workplace labor across the man and his wife. Oh, how we could pick fights about what it should and should not mean to be a man.
One thing that This Is Us has done is capture truths about manhood that should be universal, speaking subtly and almost silently to the lives of any boy or man who watches the show.
As a man, it isn’t ‘cool’ to want to escape your wife
One of the very first things that Jack Pearson, the patriarch on the show, said that captured my attention in the show was when his wife, Rebecca, was excessively pregnant with triplets. She was hormonal, exhausted, and unkind. I believe it was Jack’s birthday, and his friends invited him out to go golfing with them, and they started resentfully going on about their wives. They turn to Jack for participation, and he refuses. He says,
…she’s at her worst right now. Like, exorcist level bad. But I still don’t want to escape her…I want to freeze time, just to get a little bit more.
and left the country club that minute to go back to her.
The reason this jumped out at me is that this is the kind of man my father is, but not the kind of man that gets portrayed on television. My father preferred the company of my mom to the company of any. other. person. He would say that when he married mom, he was choosing her to be his best friend over any other person in the world and he didn’t need to buddy-buddy with men away from her. But in the media, annoyance and disrespect toward women is glorified by how married men speak of their wives. In the entire course of the show, Jack does not speak of Rebecca without love. Now that is cool.
Relationships are a team sport
We definitely see this in Jack and Rebecca’s marriage, but we especially see it with Beth and Randall. Beth was a stay-at-home mom for the first season, but when Randall left his job to spend more time with his family, Beth went back to work. Before this decision, in season one, Randall wanted to go off to work, missing his daughter’s chess tournament. Beth looked him in the eyes, and said
Nuh-uh. Tonight, I call marriage.
Both Beth and Randall have this power. Both halves of the marriage can remind the other of what matters. Many, many times throughout the show, they do. They have this ‘game’ they call “Worst Case Scenarios,” where, to deal with Randall’s crippling anxiety, they just toss back and forth their deepest darkest fears for how a situation would turn out. They both do it. Randall isn’t just addressing Beth’s worries like she’s a scaredy-cat, and Beth isn’t just pacifying an obsessive husband; they respect each other’s fear and get everything out in the open. When Randall decides he wants to buy an apartment building, Beth goes in on it with him, despite her worries, and works by his side to get the project underway. When Beth needs Randall to stop freaking (“Randall-ing”) out on her, she says as much. When Randall needs Beth to let down her emotional guard, he says as much. They fight, they argue, they get angry, but they can’t stay away, because they are in. love. Randall is a beautiful demonstration of a man who loves his wife in practical, day in and day out, kind of ways.
The road to being a good man is bumpy, sometimes
Kevin Pearson is the character on the show that everyone loves to hate and hates that they love. He’s attractive, used to getting his way, selfish, needy, an addict, and gets away with all of it for much of the first two seasons. But besides being an example of everything wrong with self-absorbed machismo, Kevin’s story points out that life is a journey, and you don’t always need a map to succeed. Kevin’s earliest plans were to be a football star, then he had his dreams crushed by an injury. He turns his face to acting, eventually ending up on TV. That falls apart, so he tries stage. Theatre doesn’t work out, but he gets signed for a movie. Along the way, he faces addiction. Kevin is lost, and by the end of the second season, he’s started to find the path again. In the season finale, you see him in a grounded place, realizing the consequences of his carelessness and selfishness. Sometimes, it takes a while to find your place, and that’s okay. It’s never too late to confess your shortcomings and do better.
Being sappy does not compromise your manhood
Jack Pearson is the king of what Rebecca calls “grand gestures.” But sometimes his grandest gestures were simple and sweet and private. When Rebecca was facing a health scare, Jack takes her from her appointment, terrified and anxious for the test results, to a surprise place: his ‘favorite tree.’ When they get there, Rebecca asks him what makes it his favorite place, and he says,
…because this is the tree where we get good news.
His pager goes off, and they run to the payphone just across the drive to call the hospital back. They do, indeed, get good news. She’s fine. There, at night, relieved, she looks at him and asks,
Why this tree?
It was the one closest to a payphone.
He made. it. all. up. Or, rather, he chose to express an intentional sentiment to help Rebecca deal with something. Early on in the show, Rebecca tells him she needs more from him in the marriage, and he promises her that if she wants a 10 on a 1-10 scale, he will be an 11. The show is littered with moments like this between not only Jack and Rebecca, but Jack and his children. Almost everything that comes out of his mouth is laced with grace and kindness toward those around him, and he’s not ashamed of it. He doesn’t let fear of his emotions prevent him from emoting to those he loves. This leads nicely into…
Real men cry
Randall Pearson cries. All the time. He is an emotional man and it’s endearing. He is emotionally invested in everything. He tears up when his foster daughter finally called him ‘foster dad.’ He completely loses it when he had to say goodbye to her. In season one, with his anxiety severely stretched and undertreated, he was a mess. But oh, what a man. He is strong. He will stand up to bullies and stand up for justice. He is corny and nerdy as all get out, but he managed to catch a heck of a fine lady who loves him with every fiber of her soul. Randall almost single-handedly attacked huge construction projects on his property and has no problem getting sweaty and dirty. There is nothing unmanly about Randall at all, and he cries. Boys and men have to understand that crying doesn’t make them pansies, and Randall leads by example.
Don’t be afraid of looking silly
This lesson can be seen through Toby, Kate Pearson’s boyfriend/fiance/husband (at various points through the two seasons, he is all of these things). When Kate has news she is terrified of sharing because she’s scared to hope, Toby tries to keep the excitement in. Then, when Kate finally admits she is ready to talk about it, Toby dances and goes nuts in a very public place. Earlier in the show, Toby rolls out a literal red carpet for her. In the second season finale, the writers draw a verbal comparison between Toby and Jack, but any viewer worth their salt paying attention the whole show notices how Toby is picking up where Jack left off in Kate’s life—grand gestures are back in her life. He goes to a mail distribution center and combs through every package there to find a package that he knows will hurt Kate’s already aching heart if it arrives, and he does not give up, regardless of the workers’ opinions of him. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he is going to show love to the people he loves, and that is that.
It’s okay to get help
Almost every man in the show, from Jack to Randall to Kevin, asks for help. Viewers learn toward the end of season two that Jack regularly visited the doctor who delivered the babies for advice about raising children. Randall’s nervous breakdown poses a serious problem and it’s Kevin who finds him and helps him feel safe. Kevin’s struggle with addiction leads to rehab and then a family counseling session; he has to admit that he didn’t get to this place alone and he can’t get out of it alone, either. Jack even takes out a loan from his father, an abusive alcoholic with whom he has no relationship, to help build his family a home. Guys can’t be the strong people they feel like they need to be without help from people who love them. They can’t do it all by themselves.
The best kind of fighting is fighting for other people
Jack and Rebecca, like most parents, started off as a couple first, before they even thought of raising a family. Jack soon began to desire children. Rebecca, at the time, did not. It became a matter of some crisis, and there’s a point where Jack says to Rebecca,
If it is between you and having kids, you win. Every time. No question.
This isn’t about whether Rebecca was justified in not wanting children. She was scared to have children, and came to want babies and love the ones she got. But in that moment, Jack surrendered his desires to those of his wife. He fought for their relationship. He fought with his children, for his children, to sustain a healthy home for them and Rebecca. This attitude in the fictional family culture is summed up nicely by Kevin when he made a hard choice for a relationship, and declares that
Sometimes you gotta do the right thing, even if it’s not what you want.
This Is Us is quality writing, with beautiful character development and lessons for both men and women. While the world keeps arguing about what it means to be a man, the writers present characters so substantial and realistic that few people can disagree with what they’re saying about manliness. As a member of the Christian faith community, despite the fact that I couldn’t describe This Is Us as a ‘family show,’ it is a show that demonstrates the beauty of family informed by faith (the writers have yet to get specific about any sort of denomination or faith, and themselves draw no ties, but as a believer myself, I see values represented that I hold to in my own faith. There are occasional clues to suggest that the TV family does at least follow in a mildly religious tradition).
I hope for any young men watching that they see positive examples in entertainment that are so rare to see anywhere else. I hope for any older men that they see positive examples to encourage them to do what’s right for their families. Strength and sensitivity meet in the male characters of This Is Us, and when season 3 drops next September, Those Of Us who are fans, male and female alike, will be poised in front of the TV to continue to follow their stories.