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The Safe Progressivism of This Is Us

This Is Us - Season 1
Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in the midseason finale of This Is Us. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Spoilers ahead for the first season of This Is Us.

This Is Us — which, in its gentle, feel-good way, has delivered almost as many twists this season as Westworld and Mr. Robot combined — revealed another in Tuesday’s mid-season finale: William (Ron Cephas Jones), Randall’s birth father, is gay.

Actually, it’s unclear at this point whether William identifies fully as gay, but at the very least, we know that William is sexually fluid enough to currently have a male partner, played by Denis O’Hare, with whom he reconciled just in time for the Pearson family Christmas Eve gathering.

This is yet another new piece of information for Randall to process about the father he’s never known until now. It’s also yet another issue — with a capital “I” — to add to the pile of Issues This Is Us has confronted so far in its first season. Drug addiction, racism, alcoholism, adoption, obesity, cancer, and, now, acceptance of surprise homosexuality in a parent. Yes, it’s all here, most likely triggering the Automatic Trophy Alarm at Peabody Award headquarters.

This Is Us has emerged as a breakout mainstream hit at a moment when, as critic Melanie McFarland noted recently in Salon, we need examples of inclusion on television more than ever. When so much of what’s happening in American culture speaks, at alarmingly loud volume, of divisiveness and marginalization, watching a fictional family whose members reflect different colors, sizes, orientations, and ethnicities isn’t just a comfort. It might be a necessity. In every episode, it’s obvious that showrunner Dan Fogelman and everyone involved in the series all have their hearts snugly tucked in the right place.

But with every episode, it’s also clear that This Is Us tends to practice what I’ll call comfortable progressiveness. It tackles challenging subjects, but in a way that feels much too safe.

On the subject of race, the show has been clear that Randall — the adopted black son with twin, biological siblings in an all-white family — has understandably always felt like an outsider, during his childhood and as an adult. When he discovers in a recent episode that his mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), stayed in contact with William, Randall’s biological father, for decades while pretending she did not know who William was, Randall is understandably furious. Realizing that one’s mother put a blocker in front of that relationship and lied about it would be devastating in any circumstance. But Rebecca’s actions also prevented Randall from connecting with the most important black man in his life and, by extension, understanding himself within the context of his race. To put it mildly, that is a big deal.

And yet it is astonishing how swiftly the show has pushed Randall toward forgiveness. Apparently all he needed to sort through feelings of acute betrayal and disenfranchisement were a few accidental swigs of an LSD-laced smoothie and a drug trippy conversation with his dead adoptive Dad. (If for some reason you missed episode nine, I swear, this is what actually happens.) By episode ten, the one that aired Tuesday night, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) may not be “over” what happened, but he’s over it enough to warmly welcome his mother into his home during the holidays.

As this storyline suggests, This Is Us has a habit of walking right up to the front door of a really provocative, dramatic subject, then refusing to cross the threshold into its more unpleasant aspects. Here’s another example: During a flashback, after Rebecca changes her mind about allowing a young Randall to visit William, she tells Jack, who still doesn’t know William exists, that if a connection between Randall and his hypothetical birth father is made, she’s afraid Randall will be taken away from them.

In other words, Rebecca is threatened by William, so much so that she won’t even tell her own husband William exists. But is there a racial component in all of this? The subtext certainly leans toward yes, but it also seems like the show is inviting the audience to breathe a sigh of relief when Rebecca reveals her instincts to be purely, universally maternal — the classic “I love my son and I can’t risk losing him” argument — and not those of a white woman consciously or subconsciously scared to expose her child to a struggling, recently sober black man living in a modest one-room apartment. (Now that William has been outed on the show, one wonders, too, if Rebecca had concerns about introducing Randall to his gay father. Possibly this is the next big “twist”?)

It’s true that This Is Us has acknowledged the racial issues that arise when white parents try to raise a black child. But most of the time, the show depicts Rebecca and Jack as the kind of good, upstanding, progressive white folk who won’t make anyone watching NBC on a Tuesday night feel uncomfortable. When Rebecca drags Randall away from a black family at the community swimming pool in a way that makes her seem racist, she immediately reverses course, apologizes to the black mother she offended (Ryan Michelle Bathe, who happens to be Sterling K. Brown’s wife in real life), and sets up a play date. Since Yvette, that black mother, exists in the This Is Us universe, she is, of course, immediately forgiving and more than happy to oblige.

Rebecca and Jack also actively seek ways to make Randall feel connected to the black community, most notably when they sign him up for a martial-arts class at a studio owned, operated, and dominated by black men who could be role models for their son. In keeping with the white savior trope, it’s clear they are trying to do everything right by Randall. Which is admirable and, by the way, not, on its face, unrealistic. I know that there are white parents right now in this country who are trying to raise black sons and daughters with the same level of sensitivity and love.

What’s disappointing is that we so rarely see Rebecca or Jack confronting their own unconscious biases or sense of privilege. It’s disappointing because This Is Us has established itself as a show that’s thoughtful enough to explore that territory; it could go further down the road it’s traveling, it just keeps choosing to turn the car around. It’s even more disappointing because, as the recent presidential election results have shown, many white people in America seem very capable of overlooking racism, on scales large and small, without ever bothering to consider what this says about the flickers of prejudice in their own hearts. This Is Us is exactly the kind of show that could shine a light on the need for further self-examination on this point. But so far, it hasn’t. I am hopeful that will change in the final eight installments of this 18-episode season.

I also remain hopeful that Kate (Chrissy Metz) will finally get to be defined by more than just the weight she physically carries. This Is Us deserves credit for addressing the way that body issues and obesity can affect a person’s psyche and identity. But — and I would say this comes through on the race-related front, too — it’s so clearly thirsty to earn credit for that effort that it forgets to do the hard work of shaping Kate into a multidimensional human being. Every time Kate gets wounded because someone only views her through the prism of her weight, This Is Us implies that it’s unfair to treat people this way. And yet the show consistently defines Kate and all of her story arcs based on her size.

In fairness, all three of the Pearson children are defined by a single through line that runs from childhood to now. Everything that happens to Randall speaks to his status as the perpetual outlier in the family. Kevin, the middle child starved for attention, grows into an emotionally stunted man who thrives on the attention that comes with being an actor. And Kate, who was criticized by her mother for her eating habits and, more subtly, her appearance as a girl, is now a woman fixated on losing pounds. That’s how the show works. But because we so rarely see women like Kate or actresses like Metz on successful network shows, the fact that she’s sketched in a limited way is a particular letdown and a lost opportunity to speak to the idea that people who are overweight are actually people with broader concerns than dieting.

For those who might think I’m being too nitpicky or expecting too much from a prime-time drama that airs on a traditional network, I say: Look to season two of American Crime, admittedly a tonally darker work than This Is Us, but one that offers a more honest look at biases regarding race, economics, and sexual orientation. For that matter, look to Ed, a show that went off the air more than a decade ago but that, like This Is Us, focused largely on decent, sometimes clueless white people, including overweight characters — notably one who underwent gastric-bypass surgery — that engaged with the world in ways that often had nothing to do with their size.

My point is it is possible to make compelling mainstream TV drama that’s also nuanced and risk-taking. So far, This Is Us has been compelling, well acted, and often touching. What it hasn’t been yet is brave.