East Side/West Side was a CBS TV drama that aired for one season, 1963-1964. It starred George C. Scott, Elizabeth Wilson (who later portrayed the mother of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate), and a young Cicely Tyson. It dealt with tough inner-city problems and controversial issues like prostitution and drugs. It was ahead of its time and it paid a price. Potential sponsors shied away from the program. Numerous local CBS affiliates refused to air it. As a result, it failed to attract a substantial audience and was cancelled after one season. Yet East Side/West Side garnered eight Emmy nominations.
I loved the program. It made me aware of things my 15-year-old brain had never thought about. It touched my heart, exposing me to troubled lives and painful situations foreign to me. When it was cancelled, I wrote letters of complaint to KIRO, Seattle’s CBS affiliate, and “The Seattle Times.” The letter was published in The Times’ TV section. That may have been my first serious, and apparently successful, attempt at writing.
But why am I writing about that now?
The Nussbaum Family did not watch hour-long TV dramas. We watched variety shows, comedies, and news/political programming. That was because most hour-long dramas of that era were Westerns or cop/private-eye/lawyer programs with crimes at their core and guns as the primary prop. My parents did not find those things entertaining. But we watched East Side/West Side because it was courageous, honest, and challenging. That was the first network hour-long drama on TV I loved.
There have been others over the decades: The Waltons, Family, Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, and My So-Called Life are among those that come to mind. I watched these character-driven programs regularly because the writers’ words and the casts’ gifted portrayals of complex, nuanced characters made me think and feel. But none impacted me like Lost.
The airing of the pilot episode of Lost on September 22, 2007 affected me like no other TV drama episode ever had. The concept, the relatable characters, the writing, the production values, and the mysteries had me hooked from the first scenes. With each new episode, I became more obsessed with trying to interpret the littlest detail, the dialogue, and the symbolism. I became emotionally involved with every character. I found others who felt as I did and spent hours with them trying to decipher each episode. When the first season of Lost was rerun during the summer, I watched with a legal pad on my lap so I could take notes, make connections, see patterns, and find answers. Lost ended six years later. Its conclusion was controversial and unsatisfying for many, but I loved it; I interpreted it my way and found answers and satisfaction.
My experience with Lost, however, had a negative effect on me. I promised myself I would never again allow myself to become so involved, so invested in a TV program, its storyline or its characters. When new dramas aired, first with great pre-season buzz, then stellar reviews, and finally numerous awards, and friends told me, “You just have to watch this show.” I just shrugged and said, “No.” I couldn’t put myself through that again.
Therefore, I did not watch popular, successful, quality programs like The Sopranos, Six-Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. I knew one viewing would get me hooked.
But then came This is Us.
NBC’s promotion made the program sound interesting. I was intrigued. And I broke that promise I had made to myself. I watched the premiere of This is Us. Several minutes into it, however, I found myself confused by the alternating timeline; one scene took place in the 1980s followed by one in the present followed by another somewhere in-between. I didn’t get it and channel-surfed until I found something I could understand like a rerun of a decades old sit-com with a laugh track that told me when to be amused.
Several weeks later, perhaps five or six, I stumbled onto This is Us again. I’m not sure why, but I gave it a second chance. And am I glad I did. I did not understand the context of the scene I had intruded on, but I could feel its realness, power, and heart. I was hooked.
This is Us is told in an originally structured manner, gradually uncovering why and how the members of The Pearson Family became the people they are today. It explores how both large life-changing events and seemingly insignificant moments in the past influence who we become. It reminds us that people are complex, have painful baggage, and that we should not judge others too soon.
For those unaware of the show or its unusual premise, This is Us follows siblings Kevin, Kate, and Randall and their parents Jack and Rebecca Pearson. Kevin and Kate are the two surviving members of a triplet pregnancy, conceived after Super Bowl XIV. While their due date was October 12, 1980, they were born early on Jack’s birthday, August 31; their biological brother was stillborn. Naturally, Jack and Rebecca are devastated by the loss. On that day, a black child is born and his biological father abandons him at a fire station and the boy is brought to the hospital where Kevin and Kate had just been born. When Rebecca’s doctor suggests The Pearsons adopt the baby, to help fill the emptiness of their loss, they at first reject the idea—their grief is too great and it is too soon— but eventually they agree.
The scripts are touching, insightful, and painfully human. The performances by the “generations” of cast members are flawless; the Screen Actors’ Guild recently named it the Best Ensemble Cast – Drama on television. But the structure, how the back and forth time-traveling reveals more and more about the psychology of individuals and families, is at the core of this dynamic drama.
If I don’t cry during an episode of This is Us, I come pretty damn close. Countless other fans have made the same statement. If I sleep well after watching This is Us, it is rare. The Pearsons’ plights and pain echo in my head through the night. If I spend the day following a This is Us episode without it constantly haunting my thoughts, it is…well, that hasn’t happened yet.
Needless to say, I love This is Us. I am thankful I gave it a second chance. But I am even more thankful I broke that promise to myself.