Most of the time, TV dads leave much to be desired. They are the Homer Simpsons, the doofuses—clueless about the needs of their wives or children, totally absorbed in themselves, or in football, or in their cell phones. When one finally does come across an admirable father figure on a popular TV show, it is a breath of fresh air. From a Catholic perspective, This Is Us is not a perfect show in terms of morality—characters cohabitate and use contraception; it has its token homosexual character. But if there is one thing it gets right, it is fathers. This Is Us gives worthy fathers fantastic representation, as men who love their wives and their children, and who sacrifice themselves for the good of their families.
This Is Us follows the Pearsons, a family with triplets Kevin, Kate, and Randall, and checks in on them at various points throughout their lives: when the triplets are babies, when they are 8, 17, 26, and in their mid-30s. The story expertly jumps from one point in time to another, leaving the viewer wondering how the family arrived at a later stage, and then filling in the blanks or adding surprises in the middle. But while the show follows the coming-of-age of the triplets, the character upon whom the story truly hinges is their father: Jack, portrayed by actor Milo Ventimiglia.
While mothers have an importance all their own, worthy of exclusive study, allowing the show to revolve around a father’s influence bears testimony to the unique gift of fatherhood. Fathers have an immeasurable impact upon the lives of their children, for good or ill. Nor is that impact confined to the limits of this world, for fathers also provide a reflection, or sign, to their children about who God is. As Archbishop Charles Chaput pointed out in a recent speech: “every father shapes the soul of the next generation with his love, his self-mastery, and his courage, or the lack of them.”
Therefore, it is realistic that wherever each child finds him- or herself in the story, the situation often ties to an element of their relationship with their father, or the manner in which their father and mother parented.
Each of the triplets depends upon Jack in a unique way. Furthermore, Jack’s parenting is different from that of their mother, Rebecca, though the two are usually complementary. How refreshing to see in Jack both an incredibly loving father, and one who courageously guides his children to adulthood. He attempts to be present to his family, tuned in and attentive. He perceives when his wife is overwhelmed, and he assists her. He sees when his children need discipline, or, if they are sad, he is able to comfort them realistically, witnessing to the truth that men can be sensitive to the emotional needs of wife or children without any compromise of their masculinity.
Jack makes personal sacrifices for the good of the family, as every good father does. His passion is building, but just when he gains enough confidence to make the leap and establish his own construction company, he realizes that the time is not right. Instead, he accepts a position moving up in his current place of employment in order to provide the stability and income needed for the proper education of his kids. He recognizes the selflessness required to make marriage and family work. When friends divorce, Jack reminds Rebecca of the nature of marriage: “You don’t do that to your family. You find your soul mate, you get married, you stay together until you die, period.” Later in the timeline, when 36-year-old Randall begins allowing work stress to invade family peace, his father’s example moves him to put his marriage and kids first.
Make no mistake: Jack has his flaws. Sometimes he misses the cues that might alert him to a problem. He struggles with baggage from his past and with present weaknesses. Yet even these limitations allow him to demonstrate humility before his wife and his children. One powerful moment shows 17-year-old Kevin, a cocky and self-absorbed football star, watch unseen as his father speaks with an AA sponsor and then kneels to pray the AA Serenity Prayer. Jack needs to admit weakness and ask for help, and in doing so provides an example for his children. How the children respond is up to them.
While the most obvious, Jack is not the show’s only example of responsible fatherhood. When Kate suffers a miscarriage, she isolates herself in her pain from her fiancé Toby. When Toby confronts her, trying to reach her so that they can suffer together, she snaps at him, “Toby, it happened to me. It didn’t happen to you.” Toby’s response merits quoting at length:
Now I will be your entire support system through this. I will hold your head in my lap, and I will stroke your hair, and I will tell you that everything is gonna be okay until the cows come home. But what I will not do—what is not fair for you to do—is to tell me that I wasn’t a part of this. Now, yeah, it didn’t happen to my body. I get that. I have no idea what that must be like for you. And I’m trying to be strong here, ’cause that’s the gig, but it happened to me too. And it hurt.
For all the faults in the show’s representation of Kate and Toby’s relationship, to see fatherhood valued in that situation is absolutely staggering. In a world where fathers lose children to abortion and where women’s choices trump all—as if fathers have no value, no rights, and no role—showing a father stand up for the reality of his love and the reality of the life lost imparts a tremendous message.
Both Kevin’s and Randall’s storylines reveal their dependence on their father. However, while Randall lives according to his father’s example, Kevin does so only erratically.
Sterling K. Brown, in an award-winning performance, plays Randall, the disciplined, driven, perfectionist son. Although Randall may not always be capable of maintaining a healthy harmony between life and work, he constantly witnesses to Jack’s powerful example of fatherhood. Randall loves and respects his wife, devotes himself whole-heartedly to his family, and consistently strives to be there for his family in the way his dad was.
Magnificently portrayed by Justin Hartley, Kevin is the triplet whose life is most out of order: he does many things badly, yet achieves success and popularity, all the while wishing others might see through his facade and realize how much help he needs. Kevin leads the most selfish life of all three, but interestingly, it is when he imagines himself as a father that he has a moment in which he recognizes his habitual self-absorption. His own father was present, engaged, sacrificial. In his vision of himself as a father, Kevin recognizes his failure to be truly present to others, his preoccupation with the superficial, and his inability to put others first. Fatherhood has a way of revealing a man’s character, because it is a role which by its nature is ordered toward others.
This Is Us cannot claim perfection. It bears all the messy scars of the modern culture. However, as St. Paul says, “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians, 5:21). Most men on TV fall short of the ideal when it comes to the relationships that matter most. As well-known physician and psychologist Leonard Sax remarks: “America’s children are immersed in a culture of disrespect: for parents, teachers, and one another. They learn it from television, even on the Disney Channel, where parents are portrayed as clueless, out-of-touch, or absent.” So when a show comes along that represents good fathers, and explores the powerful and positive impact that they can have, well, that’s something worth watching.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!