Context is Everything: This is Us

In honor of Season Two’s recent premiere, please enjoy this repost:

One of the least understood impacts of technology on modernity is the way it alters context, and the way that, in turn, shapes how we construct meaning.  When viewing (for example) your Facebook Feed, you are inundated with a flood of information about events, from the trivial to the profound, from the sublime to the ridiculous, about a random assortment of your close friends and casual acquaintances.  Your high-school girlfriend had a baby, your father ate dessert at a restaurant.  Your college roommate’s brother-in-law is in the hospital.  Elsewhere in the world, children are in poverty, and a small dog is trying to bury a comically immense bone.  The internet connects us with an wide breadth of human (and animal) experience, but at very shallow depth.

Some of the things on your feed are meaningful because you know the context: You know your father’s blood sugar levels, and the fact that he hasn’t been out to eat in a while, so the image of his dessert has a meaning to you.  For other items you need to work a little more to establish a coherent narrative:  You haven’t been in touch with your old girlfriend in years, but it looks like this child might be her second?  Still other things float entirely disconnected:  Your roommate’s brother-in-law looks like a nice person, but you’ve never even met him in person.  Social information surrounds you, in a swirling storm of data points and images, like snow that falls to the ground and melts, neither sticking nor accumulating.

Perhaps that is the reason the new ensemble drama This is Us has struck such a chord with the American viewing public.  With its intergenerational, decade-hopping plotlines, it offers longitudinal context of a kind you ordinarily have only for family members and the oldest and closest of friends.  At the risk of spoiling twists and revelations for those who haven’t yet started watching the series, it begins, somewhat deceptively, with the stories of four people seemingly connected only by the coincidence of a common birthdate: an expectant father rushing his wife to the hospital in anticipation of her delivering triplets, a overweight woman making a romantic connection in an weight-loss group, a Hollywood sitcom star looking to escape the his vapid hit show, and an upwardly mobile black professional showing up unexpectedly on the doorstep of the biological father who abandoned him at birth.  At first glance it promises to be a slice of life drama along the lines of the movies Crash or Babel, about unrelated people thrown together meaninglessly by circumstance.

When I first saw advertisements for the show, I was thoroughly uninterested.  It looked like a maudlin drama about transracial adoption, a heartwarming fake of a feel-good drama.  And there are certainly aspects of that to its plotlines, considered in isolation.  But context is everything.

The big twist at the end of the first show –and certainly stop reading here if you would like to come to it fresh –is that all these seemingly unrelated people are in fact members of a single nuclear family, and that we have been viewing them both in their past and in their present.  This, in itself, is enough to let us know that as familiar and clichéd as these characters might seem, we’ve really never seen them before, because we’ve never seen them in this kind of a relationship to each other.

What the rest of the season builds, and continues to build, however, is an ever denser web of context, that deepens and enriches what might otherwise be more thinly felt plots.  By continually juxtaposing the past against the present, the show adds a lifelike sense of perspective to each of its situations, and undercuts what might otherwise be sentimental or trite with a breath of reality.  For example, in one scene, a husband and wife resolve a fight with renewed expressions of undying love.  It might be unbearably sweet, except that the next scene shows the wife, in the future, remarried to the husband’s best friend.  For another example, the transracial adoption celebrated with matching shirts and a burst of feel-good music on the soundtrack, is revealed in future moments to have continuing challenges and complications that reverberate throughout the years.  The picture that is eventually built up this way is a surprisingly nuanced and clear-eyed look at a complex relationship that shows of an earlier era (like Webster or Diff’rent Strokes) presented more simplistically, with candy-coated colors and easy laughs.

We, the viewers, see that each moment is real, and genuine, but that no moment is forever.  In one scene, the mother worries that she will be unable to bond with her infant adopted son, in another scene she’s bound to him so tightly as a teenager that it causes tension with her own biological children.  In one scene, the biological father is a coked-up drug addict who abandons his son, in another he’s sobered up and eager to renew their relationship.  In one scene we see the two brothers continuing an eternal fight from childhood into adulthood, in another we see a love finally manifesting between them.  When it does arrive, it matters much more deeply to us, because we’ve seen how long and hard the road was for them to get there.

It’s a show full of good actors giving exceptional performances, as well as a show that has interesting things to say about both race and socioeconomic class, within the framework of a single family that encompasses a wide variety of both.  It’s an especially good thing to see a depiction of people, both black and white, both rich and poor, working their hardest to relate to one another at a time when so many people in real life are retreating into their own segregated camps.

Most importantly, it offers up a wealth of context for an increasingly decontextualized world.  Go watch it.

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