Up All Knight is a series that celebrates the excellent, breathtaking, exciting, wonderful things in our world. It is about changing perspectives. (To read the opening installment, click here!) Instead of dwelling on the things we hate that bring us down, it is a chance to find things to bring some levity and joy and encouragement. If you have any suggestions that our resident UCF Knight David Staples can tackle, feel free to email him at UpAllKnight_SL@icloud.com. Join us on this journey up!
I hate super sappy television shows.
(Wait, that isn’t a very positive way to start this. Let me try again.)
I have never enjoyed super-emotional dramatic television shows.
(Nope. This is hard…)
I enjoy television shows, especially in the current renaissance of the television industry. I usually gravitate towards shows that mirror my favorite movies. So it is no surprise that I like Marvel shows and action shows and smart funny shows. My DVR and Netflix queue are peppered with shows like Burn Notice (one of my favorite shows of all time) and Daredevil and Luke Cage and Big Bang Theory. Every Fall, I check out the new shows that are premiering and decide what to record and sample. This year, I immediately decided to check out Lethal Weapon, Designated Survivor, Conviction (because Peggy Carter and Ice Man are in it), Timeless, Speechless and some others. One show that did NOT show up on my viewing list? This Is Us.
I have never been a fan of emotional manipulation in any venue. I mean, I like a good drama and don’t mind having my tears jerked. I loved the opening scene of Up and the ending scenes of Toy Story 3. I always say that Schindler’s List is the best movie ever made, even though I can’t sit through it any more due to the emotional weight. But I am rarely going to intentionally book myself for a weekly appointment with emotional abuse from a show. My wife, though, likes shows with dramatic and emotional elements. She wanted to watch This Is Us. So we watched it.
For those of you not familiar with the show, it is kind of hard to summarize without spoiling the surprises. It isn’t a Lost-style show, packed with twists and secrets. Or at least I didn’t think it was. Then the first two episodes both ended with major revelations that surprised the audience. They weren’t those soap-opera style twists that don’t make sense, either. “I could never date you, Quortnee, because I’m your long lost father’s long lost twin brother’s long lost son.” They were twists that were telegraphed the entire episode, but that I didn’t fully process until the end. Then all of the hints crashed together. “Oooooohhhhhhh…..” Now shows that just throw surprises around for the sake of surprises can get super annoying, super fast. (I would mention some, but I am staying positive here.) This is not one of those shows.
The show itself is about a quintet of characters. At first, we don’t see a whole lot of connections between them. But that changes as the episode starts to highlight the strings that link them together. We have Jack and Rebecca – a married couple that in the pilot is expecting triplets. Then there is Randall, a very successful African-American lawyer with an amazing wife and kids who is looking for his biological father. We have the hunky actor Kevin who is bored of his stupid television show and playboy lifestyle. And then there is Kate. Ahhhh, Kate. You know, we’ll get back to Kate. We don’t know at first what the ties are between these characters. But slowly we discover things. Kate and Kevin are fraternal twins. They actually have a wonderful sibling relationship. They clearly love and support each other. In fact, they are the most important person in each other’s life. They are both decent people who are genuinely trying to make good choices and do something important.
By the end of the pilot, all of the secrets are revealed. Well, that isn’t true. ONE major secret is revealed about the connection between these five individuals. (Legally required spoiler alert) Randall, Kevin, and Kate are the triplets that Jack and Rebecca were expecting. “WAIT, Randall is…” One of the triplets didn’t survive the birth. Randall was abandoned on the steps of a fire station by his …. biological father. Jack and Rebecca adopt him because they already were planning on having three babies. That also means all of the scenes with that couple were decades in the past. This time-hopping storytelling method continues in episode two. We see Jack and Rebecca having typical marital problems, but trying to make it through. The scenes between Randall, his wife and kids, and his biological father are wonderful. Kevin decides to move away from L.A. and his sister Kate and pursue Broadway. And we get a major gut punch at the end of the episode. (I won’t even discuss it here. It’s pretty good, story wise.)
When I look at the shows that I have loved over the years, there are some elements that need to be present. Obviously, the main cast needs to be likable. But the side cast and guest starts also need to be quality. Take Burn Notice, for example. The main three of Michael, Fiona, and Sam were awesome. But the surrounding characters were incredible too – and they kept on bringing in winning elements: Michael’s mom, Barry the money launderer, Jesse the burned spy, Michael’s brother, Carla the spy, Anson the puppet master, so many others. And the guest actors were awesome. That is something that This Is Us already has going for it. Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia are superb as Jack and Rebecca. The triplets are spot on. Gerald McRaney pops up as Rebecca’s OB. Katey Sagal crashes as Kevin’s agent, Brad Garrett shows up as a network executive, Alan Thicke plays himself. Ron Cephas Jones is devastating and spot on as Randall’s biological dad. And Castle’s Jon Huertas arrives as Jack’s best friend Miguel – who also plays into some of the major secrets of the show. And then there is Kate.
Yes, we need to get back to Kate. This is part of what scared me about the show, but then sucked me in. Kate is extremely overweight and extremely unhappy about this. Now, you may not be able to tell from my avatar on the site, but I am a pretty hefty character. I’ve always been overweight. I’ve done the whole successful weight loss, horrible weight gain cycle. I know what it is like to carry around the crushing stigma of being heavy. In today’s world, the obese are one of the acceptable groups that can be ridiculed. Normally in television and movies, the heavy are played for laughs. We rarely get to see them as real people, so I was understandably concerned. But what I discovered is one of the truest and most heartbreaking overweight characters I can remember being portrayed on film. Kate doesn’t want to be fat. She battles every day. As we see, it was a battle from when she was a child. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own childhood battle as I watched Rebecca trying to help her hefty daughter make good food choices and inadvertently causing Kate to see herself as unworthy in the process. In the pilot, Kate meets Toby – another overweight member of their support group. This twosome becomes the aching heart of the show. They are drawn to each other, but their own issues of identity and worth cause more roadblocks than anything else. It is difficult to watch Kate as she struggles. She counts calories in a glass of wine. She leaves sticky notes on food in her fridge. She strips down for weigh-in day – all the way down to removing her earrings. Toby is a funny and caring guy. He makes me laugh every time he’s on screen. And Kate is drawn to those great things in him. But she also can’t stand to go out to parties with him because she thinks/knows everyone is judging her. I’ve been there. Every time I get on an airplane, I swear people see me and whisper to themselves, “Please keep going.” When I walk through the grocery store, I am sure people laugh when I walk past the ice cream or cookie aisle. “Ha ha, Fatty got caught in the dessert magnet.” And I’ve heard the “helpful” people tell me to just change my habits and do things better, like I haven’t tried that.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Wait, I thought this was a positive article about why he loves this show. It doesn’t sound very positive.” But that’s the thing. It IS positive. The show, at its heart, seems to be about hope. These individuals that we are growing to care about really WANT to do things right. There isn’t a comically evil person among the main characters. (Segal and Garrett are kind of jerky, but they are just cameo characters.) Jack and Rebecca are trying to be good parents and good spouses. Miguel is trying to be a good friend. Randall is trying to be a good son and husband and father. Kevin is trying to be a good person and actor. Kate is trying to be a healthier version of herself. Toby is trying to be a good boyfriend and healthier person. They all are hopeful that can happen. And I love watching that process. I love seeing Randall’s biological father trying to be a grandfather when he ruined his chance to be a dad. I love seeing Kate and Toby trying to build a relationship against the odds. I love seeing Kevin working to be more than six-pack abs and idiotic comedies.
So many shows focus on people that are rotten and devious. I’m not talking about flawed people making mistakes; I’m talking about characters who are borderline sociopaths. They constantly destroy everything around them. I appreciate that this show appears to be about people trying to embrace hope and do things right. They obviously don’t get it right all the time. But they keep on trying and moving forward. Of course, I could end up being very wrong. We are four episodes in. If things take a turn for the ugly, I will be glad to say I have abandoned ship. But, for now, I am excited to take this journey forward with them.