From its inception, NBC’s “This is Us” has been a hit. The show has captured the hearts of millions of viewers (and brought countless tears to their eyes) since its premiere in Sept. 2016 and has won multiple awards since then.
The drama focuses on Randall, Kate and Kevin Pearson both in the present day and in flashbacks, where fans also get to know the Pearson kids’ parents. The emotional stories and heavy themes are what attract so many people, but there are some flaws that should be recognized.
Though I am a huge fan of “This is Us,” there needs to be a critical evaluation of what the show brings to the table. Here are four of the biggest problems to think about when rewatching the series.
Kate’s Weight-Loss Narrative
Look, I’ll just say it up front: Plus-sized women deserve better representation than what “This is Us” has to offer. When I first heard about the show, I was thrilled that one of the stars would be a plus-sized woman.
It’s rare to see a bigger woman on a hit TV show at all, much less one whose weight doesn’t matter to the story, and I was excited to see where Kate’s narrative would go.
My enthusiasm quickly turned to disappointment during the first episode when most of Kate’s scenes were full of “fat girl” tropes. She frets over food in her fridge — and literally stares longingly at junk food covered in notes reminding her not to overeat.
She also makes a point to weigh herself while completely naked and even takes off her jewelry to make sure the scale is as accurate as possible.
Kate’s weight struggles complicate her relationships with others, especially when she begins dating a man from her weight-loss support group.
The fact that Kate gets a romantic interest at all is unprecedented, but the beginning of her relationship with Toby is plagued with arguments about weight and food, and throughout the beginning of the first season her self-image problems overshadow the progress she could be making with Toby.
Nevertheless, Chrissy Metz, who plays Kate, brings class and dignity to the role and conveys personality and nuance even when the show denies her those things. There are undoubtedly some viewers who see themselves in Kate, but not every fat woman is consumed by the idea of her weight.
She has so much potential, but fans don’t learn about her inner self until later in the seasons — after she has already stressed about fat camp and weight-loss surgery. While Kate worries less about her weight as the series progresses, her portrayal is still limiting and simply doesn’t do her justice.
The Romanticization of Toby’s Behavior
Throughout the show, Toby is portrayed as a charming, romantic and giving person even though he is actually childish and manipulative. Toby continuously ignores boundaries, pushes Kate and complains when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants right when he wants it.
After their very first date, Toby whines that Kate doesn’t invite him inside for a “nightcap or handy” after such a marvelous evening. Demanding anything in return for a date, much less a hand job, would come off as overbearing and creepy if anyone else dared say it, but somehow his comments are overlooked and fans continue rooting for him.
He also obsesses over staying in contact with Kate while she is at fat camp. The campers are not supposed to have their phones, yet he pushes to stay in contact with her and even drops by the camp unannounced when he gets jealous about one of the camp employees (who was really only there to make Toby seem like a better option for Kate).
Though I am deeply annoyed with the whole fat camp narrative, Kate went there to heal and become healthier, and Toby’s presence there could have compromised her progress, not to mention the fact that Kate was simply following a rule put in place for every camper.
Some fans have written off his behavior at the camp because he was lonely while recovering from a heart attack, but he was exhibiting these unhealthy behaviors long before he had heart issues and I have no doubt that he would’ve gone to see Kate even if he were healthier. There is simply no excuse for being so suffocating.
While it is not problematic in itself to portray an unhealthy relationship on screen, there is an issue with portraying an unhealthy relationship as a healthy one with no critical commentary on the implications of Toby’s behavior. It should be more obvious to viewers that relationships like Kate and Toby’s are not as loving as they seem.
Toby and Kevin’s Battle for Kate’s Affection
Throughout the show, Kevin and Toby both attempt to win Kate’s attention and tensions rise between the two in the second season. It makes sense that Kevin would be jealous of his sister sharing her life with another man since Kevin is used to being Kate’s confidant.
They have a strong bond and he’s been there for her since day one. However, Kevin’s jealousy of Kate’s new man is tiring and causes a strain on Kate’s relationship since she can’t please both her brother and her boyfriend simultaneously. He is sometimes rude to Toby when Toby simply wants a place in Kate’s life.
Kevin’s jealous streak most likely comes out around Toby because he is afraid of being considered second best. He never felt like his parents worried about him as much as they did Kate and Randall, but at this point, Kevin is almost 40 years old and needs to get his attitude in check.
His sense of inferiority in childhood has carried over to adulthood and, at some point, the jealousy and the petulance just gets old. Kevin wants to be important in his sister’s life, but it’s unreasonable for him to assume that he would always be the most important.
He should be mature enough to take a step back and allow his sister’s relationship to flourish without his interference.
However, Toby’s role in the relationship is also an issue. He is the type of guy who needs to be the center of attention and fills this role by love-bombing Kate at every opportunity. Like Kate’s dad, Toby has to go above and beyond to show his love for people.
However, unlike Jack, he gets jealous when people upstage him and throws tantrums. When Kevin rents out a whole restaurant for Kate on their birthday, Toby gets upset not only because Kevin steals the spotlight but also because Kate tells Kevin that she ditched an audition without telling Toby.
Toby pouts as Kate talks to her twin and gets into a screaming match with Kevin outside the restaurant after storming out.
Both men insist that they know exactly what Kate needs without considering, as she later points out, that she is a grown-ass woman who can make her own decisions. Their treatment of her is infantilizing and, though they both think that they’re the best person for her, neither ever really listen to her.
Understandably, Toby sees that Kate and Kevin are almost too dependent on one another, yet instead of encouraging Kate to be her own person and start supporting herself emotionally, he seems to just want to take Kevin’s place.
He doesn’t care that depending too much on one’s sibling could be unhealthy, he just cares because she’s not depending on him.
Randall’s Intraracial Relationships Disappear in Adulthood
Throughout the show, many of Randall’s childhood role models are never mentioned in his adulthood. In the episode where the Pearson family goes to the public pool, Rebecca befriends a woman named Yvette after initially butting heads with her over Randall.
Rebecca recognizes that Randall needs black role models in his life and sets her differences aside for her son’s sake. At the end of the episode, viewers see a family picture in Randall’s house that features this woman, implying that she will be a crucial figure in his and his family’s life.
However, Yvette only shows up in one or two other episodes and then disappears off the face of the earth.
After rewatching the first season of “This is Us,” I realized that Yvette played a much less visible role in Randall’s life than the show had originally indicated.
It doesn’t do much good, in my opinion, to simply imply that Randall has a strong relationship with this woman without showing it evolve or directly showing how her presence influenced him.
I had this same thought after the episode when Randall’s parents enroll him in a karate class for black men and their sons. The episode was heartwarming and I was excited that Randall was being exposed to strong black men as a child, but they never indicated after that episode if he stayed in karate.
Randall doesn’t mention the class and viewers don’t see any relationships evolve from his involvement in the class.
The show also has not indicated whether Randall has stayed in touch with William’s side of the family after William’s death. Randall meets his extended family members when he visits his birth father’s hometown.
He seems to get along with them well, but they also fall off the face of the earth once Randall goes home. Though he meets his family in adulthood rather than childhood, the issue still stands since this disappearance of people in his life seems to be the trend.
The show makes it seem as if Randall had a wealth of black role models to look up to throughout his life, yet they are almost entirely absent in most of the episodes.
“This is Us” is a hit for a reason. Fans are compelled by the Pearson family because of their fierce love for one another and their beautifully intertwined stories.
I will be a long-time fan of the show despite the aforementioned issues, but it is important to be critical of the media one consumes. No show is perfect, but breaking down the messages being presented encourages more critical consumption and can lead to more nuanced portrayals of prominent issues.