Critic's Notebook: On 'This Is Us,' a Rare and Timely Exploration of Men’s Mental Health
NBC's drama is one of the few shows to sensitively examine men’s mental health issues, presenting a welcome vision of masculine fragility at a time teeming with real-life male villains.
One of This Is Us' most memorable moments plays out in the first season, when Randall (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown) experiences a debilitating panic attack. Alone in his office after a stressful day at work, his hands begin to shake. His vision blurs. You can practically see the gears churning uncontrollably behind his eyes, sense his cortisol levels rising like floodwaters. He’s supposed to be at his brother’s Broadway debut, but his mind has trapped him. He wills himself to call Kevin (Justin Hartley) and tell him he’s not going to make it after all. Kevin knows something isn’t right; minutes later, he abandons the stage and runs through Manhattan (against a thrumming guitar soundtrack) to rescue Randall, whom he finds slumped on the floor. Randall falls into his brother’s embrace, sobbing into his chest.
Yeah, good luck not ugly-crying at that one. It’s a big, schmaltzy showpiece — not too far from a stereotypical rom-com airport scene — but it showcases something few other television shows dare touch: male vulnerability in relation to mental health.
While many critically lauded programs depict men engaging in bad behavior due to psychological or medical ordeals, This Is Us is one of the few series that intentionally centers and sensitively examines men’s mental health struggles — and in the past two seasons going into the third, each of its four lead male characters experiences problems ranging from addiction and trauma to anxiety and depression.
NBC’s time-spanning, multi-generational drama portrays the wholesome but troubled Pearson family, a middle-class clan whose members face everything from the complexities of transracial adoption to obstacles associated with obesity. Some critics sneer that This Is Us is a timey-wimey sentimental cry-fest (and rightfully censure creator Dan Fogelman’s one-note female characters), but exposing the raw nerve of men’s mental health is vital for audiences to witness; after all, sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.
Patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) is a stolid but scarred Vietnam vet who experienced domestic violence as a child. Although he is the consummate father and husband to Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and his three children, his alcohol dependency nearly destroys his family. His biological son, Kevin, a has-been sitcom star and commitment-phobe, turns to pills and alcohol to drown out the sorrows of his father’s untimely death. Adopted son Randall copes with panic disorder and generalized anxiety related to the pressures of being both intellectually gifted and a black man raised in an all-white family. Toby (Chris Sullivan), who marries Pearson daughter Kate (Chrissy Metz), fights against depressive tendencies and, in the second-season finale, a time-jumping sequence hints he will experience a catatonic depressive episode in the show’s future. (The third-season premiere indicates he stops taking his antidepressants in the show's present in order to aid fertility.) These are not necessarily clinically “perfect” portrayals — I would describe their storylines as "heightened" — but the show has never pretended to be anything other than an archetypical melodrama.
Viewers connect to these characters — particularly lovable, upstanding Jack and Randall — because they are men we can admire and empathize with week-to-week. In the current political climate, people now flock to the much-discussed "comfort television" (The Good Doctor, The Great British Bake-Off), but I think audiences aren't just seeking gently digestible entertainment but male figures they can actually root for in an Age of Bad Men. Only a few years ago we idolized toxic womanizers and abusers like Don Draper, Tony Soprano and Walter White, but in 2018, their antics no longer seem "badass." In the face of the #MeToo movement, the flawed but sympathetic men of This Is Us amount to a welcome and refreshing vision of masculinity during a time when real-life male villains overflow on the Newsfeed.
TV’s recent mental health renaissance reflects how disability activists have worked to educate the larger public about "invisible" diagnoses and to diffuse the casual ableism people with chronic illness experience daily. Over the last five years, countless TV series have front-loaded woman-centered mental health challenges and helped bring these stigmatized issues to the forefront of public discourse: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (borderline personality disorder), Thirteen Reasons Why (suicide), Homeland (bipolar disorder), UnReal (personality disorder), Lady Dynamite (bipolar disorder), You're the Worst (clinical depression), One Day at a Time (post-traumatic stress disorder), Jane the Virgin (complicated grief), The Good Fight (anxiety and depression), Girls (obsessive-compulsive disorder), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (PTSD) and Transparent (gender dysphoria). Much has been written about how storylines directly addressing and naming female mental illness have benefitted or disadvantaged a generation of women living with these diagnoses.
Unfortunately, men’s real-life mental health experiences are far from conversation pieces. Men are more likely to "suffer in silence." Elderly men have the highest rate of suicide of any demographic group in the U.S. (Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to complete it — in fact, men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women.) Anecdotally, I frequently hear stories from my parent friends who see little boys being told not to be "sissies." Not to cry. To swallow their pain and "suck it up." As a society, we don’t give the language of emotions to little boys. Women and girls are socialized to build networks, but men aren't typically given the tools to nurture a community for themselves. Many men, particularly senior men, sink into depression due to this isolation.
This Is Us is not the only show in the current TV landscape that addresses the weight of mental health difficulties for men and boys — Mr. Robot portrays paranoia and psychosis, BoJack Horseman depicts crushing melancholia, Catastrophe explores fatherhood and depression and Barry navigates the relationship between violence and veteran PTSD. Baskets and Showtime's new series Kidding each excavate the long-term effects of grief on men. These shows are all brilliant in their own ways, but the beauty of This Is Us is that it doesn’t use mental health as a storytelling prop to stage an unreliable narrator or utilize psychological difficulties as a comedic tool to emasculate its heroes. The Pearson men feel their feelings, often uncomfortably, sometimes unwantedly; their character arcs fully depend on their emotional ecosystems.
This is why I’m happy to see This Is Us throw off the musty plaid blanket of men’s stoicism and silence. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that people learn by observing and modeling others' behaviors: That's why TV can be such an important educational tool. The men on This Is Us ask for help. (They also resist it, of course, but that's part of building narrative tension.) After Randall reaches out to Kevin, he ends up quitting his pressure cooker job to focus on his family. Before he dies, Jack confesses his alcohol addiction to his family and promises them he will work on his recovery. After humiliating himself and lashing out at his loved ones, Kevin enters rehab for his substance abuse issues. Toby’s depression storyline is still developing, but he’s a character who wears his heart on his sleeve, especially in his relationship with Kate.
If This Is Us continues to model open and vulnerable behavior among men coping with trauma, perhaps male viewers will feel less alone in their own personal battles. Maybe the show is more than delicious junk food after all.