Okay, let’s get this part out of the way: “This Is Us”, on its face, does not come across as a Black TV show. Every central character, except one, is white, and most of the stories, including those based on or around real world events, are not ones that are exactly homages to the Black experience in America.
But of course, there is that one exception: Randall Pearson, and of course, the family he co-leads with his wife, Beth (Clarke) Pearson.
And what an exception it is.
I was a long-time “This Is Us” denier. My wife, however, watched it from the very beginning. I’d often see her crying about a scene, and soon thereafter, I would notice the many tweets and articles about just how saddening and provoking many of the show’s episodes and scenes were. Of course, as an aspiring media mogul, I certainly took note of the ratings it was getting, as well as the critical acclaim, which included a Primetime Emmy Award, and quite notably, a Black Reel Award for Best Drama in 2017.
That’s right. “This Is Us” won a Black award–after its first season!
The first time I watched “This Is Us” was when it was forced upon me after the Super Bowl on NBC–a Super Bowl in which my Philadelphia Eagles were victors. Had my team lost, there’s no way I would’ve watched the show, and this article would not have been written. But given I was in a state of euphoria, and the fact that I lived in Oakland, where no one else really cared whether the Eagles won, I sat my butt down next to my wife and watched this show I knew nothing about. It was a cool episode, but given NBC was going for an episode that would resonate with a broad audience post-Super Bowl (the title of the episode was literally “Super Bowl Sunday”), it didn’t seem special enough for me to get into it.
However, later that year, in 2018, after we had laid my only child, at the time, down to bed, my pregnant wife and I began to argue over what we would watch on TV. I decided to give in, as a good husband would do, and we went with “This Is Us”–then in its third season. I believe the episode we watched was titled “Nine Bucks”. The episode was largely about Jack, the main “father figure” in the show; however, it also dove somewhat deep into Randall’s life–focusing on his issues with the young Black girl he was trying to adopt named Deja. Certainly, the story of a Black man who was adopted by a white family now trying to convince another soon to be adopted Black girl with her own background of being forsaken by her parents had, if not a uniquely Black ring to it, the sad underpinning theme of disenfranchised families and abandonment. However, it wasn’t that part of the episode that brought me in.
Who is Randall Pearson?
The way “This Is Us” writes Randall’s character is so detailed, so well researched, and so humane, that you can’t help but be enthralled every time he comes on screen. Firstly, think about how the show broached the topic of a Black man living in white man’s world. Placing Randall in the home of his adopted white parent, we constantly got to see the external and internal battles Randall had as he grew up, worked, and raised a family under the spirit of his white father and the love of his white mother. As a kid, we saw Randall struggle with not having Black mentors early in his life and not being able to connect with his white “brother” and “sister” because they didn’t understand the things he went through as a Black child. His seeking out of a Black male teacher was powerful, showing just how much visibly seeing yourself in someone can inspire and motivate someone.
There was an Atlanta “episode” (which was really just an episodic short film) that detailed a young boy adopted by a white family, in which the boy had a somewhat horrifying experience. And while Randall was not actually tortured in “This is Us”, the trauma he had from not feeling 100% welcomed led to estrangement from his adopted family, serious emotional issues, and a need therapy. Certainly, growing up in a white family is not the normal experience for Black men, but this extreme version of having to live in a world that you’re not sure appreciates you was relatable to a lot of Black people who watched the show.
Then there is the relationship between Randall, and his wife, Beth, that also makes this series and that character appealing to Black viewers. You can’t help but be in love with how they love. Yes, in some ways, it’s a little too perfect. Even their fights are like mating rituals compared to most domestic spats I come across. But there’s a beauty in that, because ultimately, that’s what we all want–especially, as Black viewers, who certainly don’t take for granted seeing a beautiful, Black marriage on display via network television. The juxtaposition between how Randall behaves in the world versus how he is with Beth is probably the most Black thing about this relationship. To the world, Randall is the stern, rule-following, by-the-book, take care of everyone around him, Alpha male. But with Beth, he’s a man that can share his vulnerability, admit that the world around him is suffocating him, and often come to the conclusion that he is both wrong and in need of help. Black men leaning on Black women has long been a common thread in our community, and that being reflected in the relationship between Randall and Beth is a nod to our past.
And last, but not least, there’s the simple fact that Randall just has to endure so much as a man. As I stated before, he has to grow up as Black kid in a white family, leaving him little to no familial person to turn to as he encounters issues of race in his life. Then there is the fact that his job in finance simply does not respect him and the work he has put in, leaving him to feel ostracized and compelled to leave his super high-paying job, that he was crushing, in pursuit of a more welcoming path. That path ends up being politics, but because of his success, which ultimately took him to the suburbs, he initially doesn’t even live in the (Black!) communities of which he served. He also has to mend the relationship with his biological father, who left him at a fire station when he was an infant. He ultimately deals with the man who abandoned him by inviting him to live in his house. And of course, there are his own struggles as a Black father raising three Black girls, one of which he adopts and grows super close with as their own relationship has its ups and downs.
In some ways, Randall is not just a Black man, but a man, and really, just a person, going through life and all of the simultaneous crap and beauty that it can throw at you. But for any Black viewer, it’s always been more than that. Despite coming from a white world, and despite being created within the confines of a white show, the character of Randall may be one of the more compelling, intricate, well-thought-out Black characters in the history of television. The intricacy of a Black man dealing with identity, parental, mental and of course, mommy issues, for better or for worse, aligns well with the plight of modern day Black men. And counterintuitively, Randall coming from this universally white world and ultimately just figuring things out, is probably the most Black thing about the show.