I go around saying that every good story is a story about grief, without knowing if it is actually true. I’m no academic, not one to survey the entirety of English-language literature to see if I can back that up. But it seems true to me that at the heart of a good story is loss or the threat of loss.
It seems to cut across genres. What would the movie Mrs. Doubtfire be without the loss of family? Every romantic comedy is about love lost (or longed for), found, almost lost again, and then found. The Man Booker Award-winning novel this year is George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo that imagines the grief of Abraham Lincoln at the death of his son Willie.
The best example came in 2016: “This Is Us,” the closest we get these days to appointment TV, the show we can’t wait to talk about the next day, the show that some friends gather to watch together. I takes us through time – no spoiler alert needed as this is all revealed in the first episode – three babies are born, one dies; another baby is left without parents able to care for him and is enfolded into this family.
But before we know it, the babies are 37 years old, then back to 10, then back to babies, in a rotation that pivots on their common joys and losses, and their individual ones too. It is this time travel that keeps us running into the impacts of grief, some of it acknowledged and expressed, some of it deeply buried. This story-telling allows us to first see loss in minute focus, then with the perspective of time passing, to see the widening ripples of grief.
The nine key characters, the two parents, three children, their eventual spouses and significant others, and one biological dad, offer so many intersections and connections that the mind spins.
I read criticism that the show manipulates viewers’ emotions; the word “Kleenex” appears regularly in such commentary. I disagree. The show merely reveals what is there, inevitably, in life. We love, we lose, it hurts, we deal the best we can at the time. Meanwhile, our loved ones confound and frustrate us, but where would we be without them?
It is life that makes us cry, not TV writers. These characters are not snatched from the headlines, but from life. Watch “This Is Us,” or any story, through the lens of grief, and help me see if I am right.