This Is Us Just Bought In To The Marriage Trap
Why Can’t Television Just Let Married Couples Be Happy?
Ever since This is Us premiered in the fall of 2016, I have constantly been one of its biggest boosters. I think it is one of the greatest television series in history, and one that we will be lucky to see its like again. But I had a major issue with the flashforward surprise that ended Season 5 — when it was revealed that Kate (Chrissy Metz) was about to remarry. Which meant at some point in the final season she was going to leave Toby (Chris Sullivan) who she hooked up with in the Pilot and has more or less been her soulmate since.
It hasn’t been an easy road for the two of them. They suffered through a miscarriage in Season 2 and when Kate got pregnant again in Season 3, their son Jack was premature and has since become blind. (We know from a flashforward in Season 4 it’ll work out) Toby has been nothing but supportive of her pretty much from the beginning of their relationship. He was willing to adopt another child in Season 5, he has gone to elaborate efforts to make sure his physical condition would mean he was around for his children growing up and he’s gone through quite a lot, including losing his job last season and doing everything possible to find work, which led to him taking a job in Santa Monica so he can support his family. He has done everything in his power to make this relationship work at the expense of a lot. Which is why I think particularly galling to learn not only that Kate and Toby are going to separate, but that one of the reasons she’s going to leave him is: ‘she misses the old Toby.” I’ve been one of this character’s biggest boosters over the years, but this is the first time in the entire series that I really thought Kate was truly being selfish.
Now it’s not like the Pearson children haven’t done some pretty unpleasant things over the series run. Kevin, more or less, left his fiancée and the mother of his children at the altar, and even saintly Randall seemed to put his own desires about his mother’s when he tried to force her to take experimental treatment against her (and Kevin’s) wishes, which led to a major break in the family in Season 5. But the main reason I’m particular upset at the writers of This is Us is that on a show that is all about making family work despite the greatest of obstacles why in hell would they let the couple that is one of the most beloved on the series fall into the marriage trap?
You might not know the term, but the constant viewer knows what I’m talking about. Basically, it seems to be the idea that no marriage on television, no matter how many obstacles it took to get there, can ever stay happy for the good of the series. It’s the idea that a marriage without conflict is boring and must therefore face constant obstacles and in most case, separation. As someone who has been watching television for a very long time, I’m still not sure when this trope became a part of every series. We know it was verboten in the days when couples couldn’t even share a bed and pretty much stayed that way well into the 1980s. During the second Golden Age — which I classify pretty much from the premiere of Hill Street Blues until the end of Twin Peaks — marriages would often have conflict but the writers were willing to work through them. Frank Furillo and Joyce Draper constantly butted heads at work and would at one point separate because of work problems, but both were willing to work it out because they believed in each other. Similarly the relationship that lasted the longest on LA Law — Stuart Markowitz and Ann Kelsey (played by real-life married couple Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry) would have their fights over the years, over having children, health issues and problems at work, but they were determined to stay together throughout.
This would remain true throughout the 1990s as well — NYPD Blue (at least under David Milch’s tenure) was willing to keep the central couples of Bobby Simone and Diane Russell and Sipowicz and Sylvia together through constant struggles involving alcoholism, family deaths and pregnancies. It was only death that broke the couples up. ER had more than its share of bed hopping over the years, but at the end of the day most of its couples (most famous Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway) were willing to stay together despite everything.
So when did the change come? I’d like to lay this at the feet of Shonda Rhimes and Grey’s Anatomy in particular because I blame her for just about everything. And as anyone who’s watched the series for more than fifteen years (!) Rhimes believes the only happily ever after comes when you’re dead. She literally said as much when Lexie Grey and Mark Sloan both died at the beginning of Season 9: “Now they can be together forever.” Otherwise, monogamy is something you do as long as you’re happy. This is true whether you’re black or white, straight or gay, old or young. You stay with them for awhile, then you divorce and remarry someone new, then you have an affair with the partner you once loved. This was the fundamental truth about the first spinoff of Grey’s, Private Practice as well, where the only reason couples got married was so they could have reasons to have affairs and go on to someone different. Her acolytes seemed to believe in that for How to Get Away with Murder, but not subsequent series (which perhaps not coincidentally didn’t last as long)
But alas, this can not be blamed on Rhimes. I’m not entirely certainly it can be blamed on Peak TV either because that would imply there were a lot of happy marriages to begin with. Tony Soprano was always having affairs, Don Draper seemed unable to keep it in his pants, and Walter White’s marital problems had nothing to do with sex. The closest mirror we find to this is in Six Feet Under where Nate (Peter Krause, who I’ll come back to) and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths, ditto) had an affair in an airport restroom and then began a very messy relationship that involved a psychotic brother, a sex addiction, an illegitimate child and a murder before they finally got married. Then just before Nate died, he told Brenda he wanted to leave her.
All I know is that throughout the era of Peak TV, particularly on network dramas, you couldn’t have a happy marriage. Every marriage I saw on Brothers and Sisters (including two involving Rachel Griffiths) ended either in a messy divorce or a widowing. It didn’t matter if you were a police procedural (Elliot Stabler broke up and reconciled with his wife so many times I lost count) a medical drama (Gregory House wasn’t the only miserable person in love) or a comic book based drama (I still don’t know why Oliver Queen and Felicity broke up before the end of the show and I don’t want to know). A happy marriage was forbidden on any series. I think by the time The Crown debuted on Netflix; we didn’t need to royal marriages were as miserable as everybody else’s.
But the reason I’m galled that This is Us felt it had to fall for the marriage trap is because it airs on the network that had two of the most beloved great series of all time where a large part of the reason they were perfect was because they had marriages that ignored that same trap. It’s probably not a coincidence that both of these series had the same showrunner: the great Jason Katims. Many of you probably know which shows I’m talking about; for the rest of you (and given how low their ratings were that’s a lot) I’m referring to Friday Night Lights and Parenthood.
Most of the great series of Peak TV have fans because their unflinching looks at the bleakness of society. Friday Night Lights is loved because it is one of the most moving and kindest of all those shows. Most of its characters face the same bleak path that Walter White does but they find a way towards community in a way that no one in Heisenberg’s world would think of. And at the center of this community are Coach Tim Taylor and Tami Taylor, played by two of the greatest actors in television history Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Throughout the chaos that surrounding the students of Dillon, through two very different high schools, Coach and ‘Mrs. Coach’ were the rocks of Friday Night Lights. And they had one of the greatest and most authentic marriages television has seen before or since.
It wasn’t because there were no bumpy spots; it’s because none of them affected the basic relationship between the two. Tim and Tammi loved each other and were willing to always talk anything out rather than have it cause a conflict. In one of the best examples of this, at one point Tammi’s colleague Glen made a pass at her. Based on how television works these days the normal path would be for Tami to hide this from Tim, Tim would learn about it by accident, there would be an epic fight, and a separation, if not a divorce. Instead Tami told Tim immediately afterwards. There was no fight. Instead, it became a series of jokes about by association Glen had now kissed Tim. Was it realistic? Maybe not. Did we love it? Absolutely.
I only came to Friday Night Lights fandom a few years after it was cancelled. Parenthood, by contrast, I started watching early and kept following through its six year run and consider it one of the best series of the 2010s. (I didn’t put it on my list of the Best Series of the 2010s for the same reason Parks and Rec wasn’t on it: The Good Place and This is Us already were and I didn’t want so much real estate to be occupied by NBC.)
Parenthood had to fight for its life every season on a network that was already struggling for viewership and like Friday Night Lights, never got the appropriate amount of love from awards shows. But one of the reason I loved it was because every member of the Braverman clan (except Sarah, who was divorced at the beginning of the series) would be part of a marriage that would suffer from all kinds of stress but each one, relying on their siblings, their children and their parents (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia, who went through their own marital stress in Season 1) would find a way to work through it. The Braverman clan may not have liked each other all the time, but they were family and they stuck by each other.
The best marriage of the group was Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and the incredible Monica Potter). In the pilot their youngest child was diagnosed as being on the spectrum and they would spend the series dealing with it. (On a side note Parenthood’s treatment of being on the spectrum, not just by the child but by his parents and every member of his family was then and still remains the most realistic portrayal of it I’ve seen on TV.) They would deal with an unexpected pregnancy Kristina being diagnosed with cancer, Adam’s being forced to seek a new job and endless pull-ins from the rest of the family’s drama. Not once did they have a single flare-up that came close to breaking up their marriage. They had problems, to be sure but they were too strong for that.
And all the marriages on Parenthood were that strong. Even the ones that went through the biggest crises — including Joel and Julia who struggled immensely with near infidelities in Season 5 — were willing to do the work and fight for their marriages. None of them — on this show or Friday Night Lights — would dare do what Kate is doing and give us when things get tough.
Why did This is Us fall into the marriage trap when it’s been willing to fight so much hard on so many other plots? I don’t know. I have one hope in mind. We know that the final episode will deal with the family gathering around Rebecca on her deathbed. Previous flashbacks have shown that Toby is there (and still on good terms with Kevin and Randall) but that Kate isn’t. I hope that the writers are willing to do a mea culpa and on the final episodes have Kate realize the mistake she’s made and come back to the man who has done everything for her. That’s what marriage is and what is love is about, despite what you may have seen on almost every major series on TV these days.