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Addiction Portrayals on TV: This Is Us

Once a taboo topic, addiction has more recently been working its way onto our weeknight television shows. With the advent of such programs as Mad Men and Nursie Jackie tackling alcoholism and opioid addiction, respectively, the small screen is certainly becoming a bigger space for addiction-related topics to be discussed.

The NBC drama This Is Us premiered in 2016 to great reviews—and an increasingly dedicated audience. I am one of those dedicated watchers, and have cried more tears during those 60-minute segments than I am willing to admit (the show is infamous for its gut-wrenching writing).

This Is Us centers on Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), the patriarch of the Pittsburgh-based Pearson family, which includes his wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and their three children. The show takes place during different points in time throughout the past, present, and future.

The show has already dealt with Jack’s father’s alcoholism, and has since evolved to feature Jack’s own battle with alcoholism. In an earlier episode this season, Jack could be seen drinking at his desk, then later attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to combat his urges.

The theme of addiction running in families is one that has become more common in television. This Is Us explores this theme in many ways—not only through the relationship between Jack and his father.

Jack and Rebecca’s three children include a set of twins, Kevin and Kate. They also adopted a third child, Randall, who was born on the same day and abandoned at the hospital.

Randall was abandoned by a father who struggled with an addiction to heroin. Many flashbacks to his father’s life during that time are included in the first season of the show. And while Randall does not struggle with addiction as an adult, he does suffer from a panic disorder.

Sterling K. Brown, who plays Randall, voiced his support for the show’s writers in reference to his TV father’s story. An addict, Brown said, is “someone who is routinely ignored and relegated to the fringes of society.”

Jack and Rebecca’s biological children each have their own set of struggles. Kate has battled with her weight throughout her entire life, while Kevin suffered from a knee injury that led him to take prescription painkillers. On Tuesday’s show, writers introduced Kevin’s story arc, which could be poised to draw some parallels to his father’s experiences.

While this layered drama does not appear very uplifting on paper, it is tackling issues in a primetime setting with an audience of millions. It is reminding us that every family has its demons. It is showing us, through compassionate, painstakingly real storytelling that for each family, there is more than what meets the eye.

As television shows use their platform to discuss topics that matter, we can applaud these stories for their place in pop culture, and for the reassurance they provide that we are not alone.

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