Virtually every one of the 54 episodes of This Is Us that have aired since the show’s premiere in 2016 have been tear-jerkers. Common crying stimuli include depictions of alcoholism, drug addictions, heart-breaking love triangles, obesity issues, adoption controversies, work-related conundrums, marriage problems, pregnancy concerns and just about any other burden potentially associated with child-rearing. In short, This Is Us will have even the most tear-averse, stone-hearted watcher curl up in a ball of unmitigable sobs at least once during each episode.
Yet, America loves it. Countless tears have come alongside countless praises for a show mostly deemed “real” and “inspiring” (albeit “corny” and “simplistic” according to some as well). The production’s staying power is obvious: The series has been renewed through season 6 (at least), an announcement made even prior to the wrapping of season 3, and it consistently appears on best-of listicles and think-pieces. According to Variety’s list of 100 most-watched TV shows of the 2018-2019 season, This Is Us was the fifth most-watched series of the year (behind Game of Thrones and three football-related programs).
Of course, Dan Fogelman’s production isn’t the only tear-inducing machine in town. A mere glance at television screens these days results in endless weeping sessions requiring countless tissue boxes. And we’re not just talking about the crying caused by our perennially depressing news cycle. The Handmaid’s Tale, 13 Reasons Why andThe Act are just some of the high-rated, critically acclaimed shows that took over our water cooler and cultural criticism conversations in the past few years, discussions that came with a side order of desperate sobs and heart palpitations.
Are we masochists? Do we crave the catharsis usually associated with crying? And why do the tears we shed when watching Jack Pearson rent out his old apartment and light it up for a night of romance with his wife feel different to our uncontrollable wails when witnessing the results of bullying on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why?
Because at the core of our reactions, there is a striking difference indeed, one that navigates the whole spectrum of human emotions. We cry when watching The Handmaid’s Tale because we realize what the human mind and body is capable of, and we are petrified by it. But we cry when watching This Is Us because we’re in awe of what that same human mind and body could do if we only tried to be better, more ethical, logical people.
That assessment automatically grants feel-good shows the likes of This Is Usunprecedented power, importance and substance. What is more appealing in an America that is literally drenched in negativity and perpetual panic? To watch the best version of ourselves, the most redeemable aspects of the human experience, and hope they become reality or stare at a mirror that notes the soullessness that could very easily take over civilization?
If we look at television as a medium that not only mimics society but attempts to propel it to greater heights — idealizing the things we could do to be better as opposed to showcasing our evil inclinations — our outlook on what shows deserve our attention shifts. And this upcoming fall’s TV lineup might actually prove that viewers are ready to fully immerse themselves in feel-good television.
While analyzing the slate of new and returning shows that will take over our small screens this fall, one thing is apparent: Dystopian, gloomy and overall sad tales are here to stay, but they will be accompanied by at least some feel-good shows that tug at our heartstrings without the aid of end-of-the-world catastrophes and epically horrible depictions of a future nobody could ever wish for.
Some of these shows will be dramas (Prodigal Son, Stumptown and Almost Family), other comedies (Mr. Mom, Mixed-ish and Perfect Harmony). Others yet are returning reality competitions (The Voice, Chopped, America’s Got Talent) that are the very essence of feel-good television: Folks with a sob story (a necessary requirement to even audition for these shows) who turn their sadness around by showcasing their extraordinary singing, dancing, acting, cooking talents and more. And, of course, we’ll also enjoy the return of tried-and-true productions like This Is Us.
Season 4 of This Is Us guarantees new explorations of child-rearing practices and growing up tales that will likely give even more insight into the show’s overarching themes: the fragility and beauty of everyday life, the importance of family and humans’ ability to adapt to change — no matter how unexpected, sad or at-first-impact devastating.
Clearly, there is something about tears of joy and hopefulness that America still craves, and here’s hoping that will never change.