The portrayal of families on TV has undergone a major transformation since the 1950s. Back then, the storylines were simple. Ward and June have a problem with The Beav. Shelley Fabares can’t get a date for the school dance. Lucy and Ricky have a “blessed event” (because you couldn’t say “pregnant” on television). But around the 1970s, and especially the 1980s, everything changed. The storylines for family-centered shows got a lot more complex, peeling back the veneer of the TV curtain for a glimpse of the real world. Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, and One Day At A Time covered issues like divorce, racism, and even child molestation. Fast forward to the present, where these storylines have only gotten more complex in terms of showcasing how families respond to social and cultural issues. The visibility for these topics for a public audience great…but let’s be honest. Not all of the writing is. Which is why there is so much that writers can learn from how This is Us portrays its characters and the conflicts their families face.
Entering its final season in 2022, This is Us is a time-jumping series that, upon its conclusion, will have focused on nearly a century in the lives of the Pearson family. The show has the wormhole-like structure of Lost—it is continuously peeling back layers, showing that there is even more to the characters than we could have imagined. The action is not confined to one moment in time explored over the course of 45 minutes. Rather, the story interfaces the present day with the past and future, showing how the trajectory of the family’s decisions, struggles, and experiences impacts the characters throughout their lives.
As a result, we get to see the Pearsons’ entire history, putting the puzzle pieces together and seeing the ripple effects of milestones and crucial events. Right now, there are some MAJOR pieces missing from the story, and viewers can look forward to seeing the complete picture when it concludes its last season. When we talk about crafting stories that feature families and their complexities at the core, This is Us is a bingeworthy masterwork with a lot to teach writers about how it’s done. Here are just a few things I’ve taken away from it not just as a fan, but as a writer.
The characters are consistent, complicated people.
The characters on This is Us are human, and part of what makes them human is their consistency. The moments I laugh the hardest during an episode are when a character does something that is so perfectly them. They each have their own voices, personalities, quirks, and foibles that distinguish them from each other. We don’t just understand who the individual characters are, but the roles they each play in the family as result and how their siblings, spouses, and children respond to them. Anyone who has written a book with a ton of characters (like in Pride and Prejudice, as we saw last week) knows how hard it is to keep all of them straight. One of my writing friends has an entire Excel spreadsheet devoted to organizing all her characters’ attributes, backstories, and relationships with each other.
If you are great at developing and keeping track of that many characters, then I salute you, my friend. But the rest of us just get headaches thinking about this stuff. When you count them all up, This is Us has a minimum of 18 characters who consistently figure in various storylines and numerous others who orbit around them in different places and times.
We don’t just know their personalities and backstories, though. The writers also give us an inside look at the personal demons that stem from their family background. This is particular seen in the three Pearson children, who form the core of the family’s narrative. Kevin (like his father, Jack) battles alcoholism. Kate has struggled with disordered eating since her teen years, a habit that has since led to obesity. Randall is a perfectionist with severe anxiety. On top of that, all three are navigating prolonged grief from a family tragedy they have never fully processed. All of these factors drive their reactions to the plot and the conflicts that unfold between them in a way that is realistic and believable.
The more consistent your characters are, the more readers will connect with them. The more you let readers in on their personal struggles, the more relatable and realistic they will be.
Viewers only get the information they need, when they need it.
In the hands of less capable writers, the sprawling, multi-generational storyline of This is Us would put viewers on information overload.
A storyline that showrunner Dan Fogelman has always known would take no less than six years to fully unfold would be crammed into one or two seasons, resulting in mass chaos and confusion. Yet, the writers do a tremendous job of compartmentalizing the backstories of the characters and dropping bits of the story like breadcrumbs. As a result, viewers only get new details about the story on a need-to-know basis. This often creates drama and intrigue, opening loops and new mysteries in the Pearson family saga—many of which are not resolved for several episodes or even seasons.
The take-home point is that as your own family saga unfolds in your writing, particularly in larger works like novels or memoirs, the way you parcel out key details needs to be strategic.
Give readers too little information and they won’t understand why they should care. But give them too much and they’ll feel too overwhelmed to continue.
It tackles family conflicts with grace and sensitivity
Along with the aforementioned alcoholism, eating disorders, grief, and anxiety, here is a brief, but by no means exhaustive, list of the very real issues affecting families that This is Us has tackled in the last five years: Infertility
Single parent homes
PTSD (including combat situations, abuse, loss)
Intellectual giftedness and high sensitivity
Gender identity and sexual orientation
Dysfunctional parent/child relationships
Abuse in families (physical, mental, and emotional)
Infant and pregnancy loss
The COVID-19 pandemic
The danger of a show that deals with that many issues is that it runs the risk of becoming less of a family drama and more of an After-School Special running during prime time.
This was what made a lot of shows from the 1980s that addressed these topics so problematic. They took very serious topics with devastating consequences and reduced them to an oversimplified plot that could be resolved within an hour. That isn’t what’s happening here. The This is Us writers don’t shoehorn hot button issues into the story for the sake of being relevant. Their inclusion in the story naturally flows from where the family has been and how the characters would logically respond. Randall’s ongoing struggle with racial identity provides a great example. A black man who was adopted by a white family, he has dealt with the many unknowns of his past throughout the series, which has been a consistent source of both internal and external conflict for his character. Randall is a fictional person. I know this. Yet, when George Floyd was killed last spring, one of my thoughts was how Randall was going to respond. Part of what makes This is Us so unique is that it takes place in our present-day world, in real time. Considering Randall’s sensitivity regarding race, there was no way the writers could avoid addressing the event. This is Us indeed dealt with Floyd’s death, particularly in a heartbreaking scene where Randall calls his sister out on her response to the Black Lives Matter movement in light of unresolved issues from their childhood.
Take a few minutes to watch it in the link below. It’s a perfect example of how the writers use present day events to bring to light an unaddressed family conflict.
The other thing that needs to be mentioned about these writers is that they do their homework. I’ve talked to many friends who are thankful for the fact that This is Us does not simply explore issues they have dealt with, but that they get their information right.
One friend who was dealing with infertility at the same time as one of the characters even told me that the fact that the episode accurately portrayed the specific details of a particular treatment made her feel like the writers saw her. Most TV shows don’t take the time to do this. As a result, they alienate viewers and lose credibility. And in a world where our readers are experiencing real emotional responses to difficult topics, you can’t afford to get it wrong.
So, if you haven’t watched This is Us yet, fire up Hulu and give it a go. You might get some fantastic ideas about how to develop your characters and the conflicts they face among family. You can also grab a free copy of my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, which includes tons of writing prompts, tips, templates, worksheets, and more for creating unforgettable stories and characters.