I had about 26,043 things to do last week, and on Tuesday I had been working up till about half an hour before bed. But there was one little square of life-chocolate that I made time for—streaming the season premiere of This is Us.
I’m a Christian, and I know that not all of any show’s values will align with mine. (All of life doesn’t align with my values. So there’s that.) But as a writer, I analyze: What is the magnetism of this show? Why are we so hooked by the Pearson family? Why do we love this messy (though typically non-crass) brood that could be any one of us?
What turns our heads
I’ll tell you what any other Google search or yoga-pants mom in the park could tell you: Humans are sucked in by story. C.S. Lewis observed, “We read [or watch or listen] to know we are not alone.”
Now, this drama is decidedly scripted by eleven diverse writers, but just enough to make us dream of what could be. It differentiates pleasantly from the dirty diapers and sheets we change or the online bill we pay after the kids are in bed.
But This is Us is unabashedly real, in a manner Christian dramas may struggle to be. In an airbrushed world (and a fairly airbrushed cast), the characters of the obese Kate and overweight Toby form the television equivalent of lifting the hair from your sticky neck on a summer day.
But what else? We love the sly wit that leaves us guffawing out loud in our PJs after a long day. We like the diverse drama of characters huddled within a single family, allowing a furtive peek beneath the veil of foster care, interracial adoption, depression, alcoholism, infertility—situations lurking in any one of our families with weighty relevance. We like it when real people say they’re sorry: “It was lame of me to try to compare our situations,” Randall apologizes in season three’s premiere episode.
And we like to picture the stories spiraling out from every one of us, the collage of generation layered upon generation. This is Us stitches a tapestry effect, allowing us to trace time and return to it. Or perhaps in a more modern effect, the story zooms in and out like a Prezi, its time lapses establishing connections over decades. I mean, what’s not to like?
What we long for
Yet I have a hunch there’s a greater reason for our devoted viewing. I recall the opening quote of the 2005 flick Sweet Land: “Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.”
As one traipsing through my nineteenth year of marriage, I can testify that most of love is long and boring (to swipe a phrase from Peter Gabriel). Most real love stories aren’t lit by candles, but by devotion after that diagnosis. That job loss. Her nitpicking. His passivity.
This is Us tells us there is beauty in ordinary loving. There is romance and redemption lying wait in our days, breathless not with passion, but with the hard work of love.
The Love Story within any love story
Author Paul Miller articulates a story pattern he dubs the “J-curve” of any good narrative. When the “J” begins—imagine your hand penning the left hook of the J—things are good, happy. But then they descend (the bottom of the J) into some form of loss, of death. Yet in any love story worth your popcorn, this is followed by a “resurrection” (the long, upward arm of the J)–hands-down better than before.
Miller theorizes that every good story is a death-resurrection story—a gospel story of sorts. “No story is more powerful than a gospel story. In fact, if you want to write a book or a movie script, you’d better make it a gospel story, or it likely won’t sell.”
See, inside any love story that rivets our eyes, that sticks to our souls, is the real Love Story. Of a God unrelenting to get us back, willing to lay down His own life (Can you see Jack Pearson running into his burning house? Randall and his wife beckoning Deja into their family?) so we could be pulled close again. Miller (and, I would argue, This is Us by proxy) elaborates that our own love requires living a J-curve:
As we go downward into death, we are active: active in seeking humility, in taking the lower place, in mindless, hidden serving. This is the journey Jesus took . . .We can do death. But we can’t do resurrection. We can’t demand resurrection—we wait for it.
Echoing the story we crave
As director M. Night Shyamalan wrote, “The world bows to love. It kneels before it in awe.” Perhaps love stories, the stories of family, compel us because they echo the story we crave within the gut. It’s the one that God’s already playing out: His relentless pursuit. His bridging the gap. His restoring everything we ever lost. Believe it or not, it’s far more sweeping in scope, far more tear-jerking and life-altering, than anything cooked up within a room of a thousand writers.
Copyright © 2018 by Janel Breitenstein. Used with permission.