My mom claims the reason she chose to have a big family can be traced to The Waltons. Set in West Virginia during the Depression, the show follows its titular family through the rural woes of the time period. (I suspect John Boy, played by Richard Thompson, was the original draw for my mom, who openly admitted to an adolescent crush on him.)
Out of exceptional daughterly devotion, I agreed to sit through an episode with her last summer. The show ran from 1971 – 1981, and it carries the decade’s requisite grainy color footage. The plot we watched revolved around one of the SEVEN Walton children trying to adopt a wild doe and eventually having to set said hoofed pet free.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to imagine this show getting a greenlight in today’s television landscape.
Since our brief jaunt with the Waltons of ‘70s past, I’ve mulled over how influential that show was for my mom. She had two much older half-brothers, but she mostly grew up with just her one younger sister. My dad has just one sister himself. Neither of them came from very religious or conservative families, so in explaining why they decided to have four children, reasons must be looked for elsewhere.
Enter The Waltons.
If my mom is not peculiar in being swayed by television (and there’s no reason to think she is), then I can only hope the millions of Americans tuning into This Is Us are being similarly influenced. Especially all the men and boys watching.
It took me a while to figure out what exactly moved me so much about the show. Its unique structure is certainly compelling, toggling back and forth amongst different eras of the Pearson family — from Jack and Rebecca’s initial romance, to their family life with three infants, to the kids in elementary school, then high school, and finally all grown up with their own adult struggles.
The acting was (is) amazing, the writing quite stunning at times. The sometimes long-shot cinematography coupled with stripped down, emotionally plying background music can make individual episodes feel like short Indie films.
But what I finally put my finger on was the extraordinary fatherhood on display in This Is Us. Both Jack Pearson and his adult son, Randall, are genuinely exceptional dads. And it isn’t because they’re constantly hauling their kids off on father-child camping weekends or princess parties.
It’s because both men are there for their kids. They’re present at home and invested in the household itself (both are seen doing dishes, installing light bulbs and baby mobiles, etc.). But that’s not what I’m talking about.
What sets Jack and Randall apart is how they pay attention to their kids. They listen to them; they actively watch out for ways they can move in to help support and encourage them.
To use a woefully overused term, Jack and Randall are intentional dads.
It’s difficult to overstate how rare such a figure is in today’s smorgasbord of entertainment options.
Fatherhood itself doesn’t feature prominently in today’s top shows. Take HBO’s blockbuster series Game of Thrones. It includes some adult male characters with offspring, but that’s hardly the focus of anyone’s character arc. Whether we’re following noble Ned Stark, conflicted Jaime Lannister, or cold Stannis Baratheon, their kids aren’t really part of their particular, personal narrative. Attentive viewers will note that a rather stunning number of adult men on GOT have no children at all. Those that do are often awful fathers.
Game of Thrones mostly demotes the dad life to its most basic function — human conception. Afterwards, the kids are an afterthought. At best.
Other offerings on the top-watched silver screen list include dystopian dramas (Westworld, The Walking Dead), reality television (Dancing with the Stars, The Voice, etc.), sports, and longstanding comedies about single and/or coupled geeks and their various travails (Big Bang Theory, obviously, and its spinoff, The Young Sheldon).
Several hit shows of television’s more recent past that ventured into fatherhood territory did so with excessively “realistic” takes on modern dads.
Mad Men brought us the brilliant, Madison Avenue kingmaker Don Draper, a dude who clearly loves his kids in a way, but who cheats indiscriminately on their mom (the woe-beridden Betsy), later spies on her therapy sessions, and ultimately checks out pretty hardcore entirely from the children’s lives.
Breaking Bad brought us Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer. At the outset, White claims he gets into drug dealing to put together a solid survival fund for his family (he’s been diagnosed with a fatal disease). But White later admits he really did it for, basically, kicks and giggles.
The Simpsons brought us Homer. Enough said.
Whatever other attributes these shows can boast (and there are, undoubtedly, many), offering an imitation-worthy model of fatherhood is emphatically not one of them.
That’s why This Is Us is so rare a gem. Neither Jack nor Randall appear particularly captivating at first glance. They’re not medieval knights or fabulously suave New York ad men or desert-dwelling meth lab dabblers.
They’re 30-something husbands and fathers with recognizable jobs (well, sort of. Jack works in construction; Randall in advanced weather derivatives trading. The latter is admittedly obscure. It’s also barely a part of the show). Their vices, as they stand, are utterly familiar. Jack struggles at two junctures to overcome alcoholism. Randall has two nervous breakdowns.
They live in suburban houses, not a skyscraper or dragon in sight.
And yet, as the show unfolds, we see their lives are infused with spectacular meaning through their families. We see Jack and Randall commit to loving their wives (Rebecca and Beth, respectively), another relationship type so rare in television that certain scenes of daily marital interaction on This Is Us would seem positively shocking to a person exposed exclusively to other American TV fare. (Jack and Randall have arguments with Rebecca and Beth, but more often, there’s inside joke banter, kitchen smooches, a sense that both couples actually enjoy one another’s presence.)
And they portray fatherhood in truth — as a desperately important role. As a solemn responsibility to be taken on with the full weight of its demands. Simultaneously, as a joy.
I sometimes think of the series like a 21st century Norman Rockwell. It shows us ourselves, but better. It gives us the dignity and respect of a look at what we might be: here’s an imperfect family that, in the end, always manages to choose to love one another despite everything.
At its heart are two portraits of exceptional fatherhood. If a million or more dads and future dads are watching This Is Us, that certainly won’t hurt their prospects of achieving the same.
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Image Credit: Instagram/nbcthisisus