NBC’s This Is Us contains one of the most poignant adoption stories to hit TV. It is real and raw, not idealized. The weekly one-hour dramedy depicts the complexity of adoption, with all its beauty, hardships and confusing emotions. We love when adoption is portrayed in an extremely positive way, but sometimes these approaches shut out its complexity, so we also love when film and TV deal with adoption topics honestly. It normalizes the adopted person’s (and their family’s) experience, and lets them know they are not the only ones feeling this way. This Is Us takes an important step in tackling adoption storylines onscreen.
The series follows siblings Kate, Kevin and Randall, whose parents are Jack and Rebecca Pearson. The children all share a birthday, but whereas Kate and Kevin are Caucasian biological twins, Randall is African American and adopted. Bouncing back and forth between the Pearson kids’ 1980s childhood and their present adult lives, the series explores the struggles that arise as young people grow up and make their way through adulthood. As we follow the lives of the three siblings and their parents, we come face-to-face with issues of identity (both racial and familial), obesity, alcoholism, sibling rivalry and economic hardship, among many others.
These are just a few of our favorite things about last fall’s breakout series:
- This Is Us explores transracial adoption to a degree we have not yet seen. There are many complexities that come with transracial adoption, as well as many contradictory emotions. The series acknowledges this and dives into those emotions, never shying away from painful or awkward situations. For example, we often see Randall having to deal with being different as a child. He is made fun of at school: the other kids nickname him “Webster” after the television series about a Black child adopted by a white family. In another scene, Rebecca learns she hasn’t been caring for Randall’s hair the way she should. While Rebecca and Jack eventually take steps to involve more African Americans in Randall’s life, they are late in recognizing his struggles to fit in.
- It shows that closed adoption can have negative side effects. Randall, while deeply loved and fully accepted as a member of his family, grows up with siblings who both know where they come from. We watch him as he grapples with issues of identity and tries to imagine his birth parents – what they look like and what they do in life. In addition, the manner in which Randall goes about locating and eventually confronting his birth father is unhealthy. Because his parents have given him little information about his origins, Randall’s initial attitude toward William is hostile.
- It displays the difficulties inherent in reuniting with birth parents. We come to understand the adult Randall’s desire to find his birth father, William, and we experience his internal conflict after eventually meeting him. William’s back story and his own conflicted feelings about meeting the son he left at a firehouse 36 years earlier are also fully fleshed out. The writers of This Is Us recognize that reunions of long-lost relatives aren’t always joyful occasions, and in adoption, they can be particularly fraught.
- It’s not always easy between siblings, and this can be much more complicated in families formed through adoption. The tension between Randall and his brother Kevin is palpable. The two rarely see eye-to-eye, and Kevin harbors resentment towards his brother that has some roots in normal sibling rivalry, but also in the fact that Randall is “special,” even if his parents never explicitly said so. For his part, Randall just wants to be like his brother and sister, even going so far as trying to hide his academic gifts.
- It not only portrays adoption realistically, but also explores topics of race, class, gender and body image in honest and insightful ways. Kate struggles with obesity, her femininity, and crafting an identity that is separate from her twin and not defined by her weight. The class differences between Randall and William are also on display, but not in a divisive or disparaging way. And, of course, the topics of race and racism are explored in-depth. In one episode, for example, William is taking a walk in Randall’s affluent neighborhood and the people next door, alarmed at seeing an unfamiliar Black man, calls the police.
- Adoption is woven throughout This Is Us, continually informing the narrative. The series’ innovative use of flashbacks helps develop Randall’s adoption story slowly and thoughtfully. Being the only adopted member of the Pearson family continues to impact Randall’s understanding of his own identity, as well as how he, his siblings and his parents understand their relationship to each other. The introduction of William to the story adds a new dimension by shining a light on birth parents and their feelings, hopes and struggles.
There are a few things, however, that we don’t love. First, the way in which Randall is adopted – without forethought, preparation or, apparently, a home study – doesn’t seem plausible. We know that Rebecca and Jack’s intentions are good, and this abandoned baby needs a loving home, but they don’t appear to have fully considered the challenges that come with adoption, and specifically transracial adoption.
Additionally, when Randall is young and questioning his background, Rebecca tracks down his birth father and meets him in person. She will not, however, permit William to see his son after he expresses interest. She also withholds any information about William from Randall and the rest of the family. We try to keep in mind that This Is Us is portraying a time when closed adoptions were the norm. Nonetheless, it is difficult for us, as proponents of open adoption, to witness the grief and loss experienced by William and Randall. That’s not to say, however, that these wounds aren’t healed. As the show progresses we watch as many of these issues are reconciled.
Taken with its flaws, This Is Us is still one of the more honest and realistic takes on adoption that exists in pop culture today. We hope that it pushes the rest of the media to portray adoption in more accurate and less harmful ways, and we continue to look forward to every Tuesday night at 8 p.m. Central Time.
Photos courtesy of NBC.com