This Is Us is one of the most brilliant portraits of modern life on TV precisely because it doesn't shy away from TV. Most modern day-set series tend to keep their characters current with pop culture references, but rarely do they actually show their characters watching TV or sitting in movie theaters enjoying the latest box office smash. (It's just a little too meta, you watching them watching the screen.) But This Is Us’ TV and movie references aren't just some of the smartest on TV today; they make the characters relatable. And most importantly, they tell the characters' stories through their media choices.
It helps that one of the characters is a successful actor in Hollywood, putting the show in direct contact with the small screen. (At least in the show's early going.) Characters, both major and minor, watch Kevin’s sitcom
The Manny as part of the show's plot point. But they also watch other things. For the flashbacks especially, these pop culture references function as anchors to how life was back in the day. This is true especially in the 1980s and ‘90s when the Big Three were younger and watching a lot of TV. But they also watch the same things audiences do in the present — proving they really are *us.*
One of the older direct references to mainstream culture is when Jack tries to watch the broadcast TV premiere of the 1980 movie
The Shining. He's constantly interrupted by toddlers who can't sleep. Back in the early 1980s, broadcast premieres of films were a big deal, and this would have been the first chance for a new parent like Jack to see a big-screen movie they missed in the theater. But it's also a reminder of how hard kids make it to keep up with current pop culture, especially when they're young. Star Wars was a cultural touchstone of the 1980s, and neither the Pearsons nor Kate’s husband Toby are immune. Not only do we get references to the original trilogy and Toby’s collection of Star Wars memorabilia, but also the prequels and the sequels. Most recently, the show has shown Toby’s attempts to watch The Mandalorian. I wouldn’t be surprised if Toby also talks about The Book of Boba Fett in Season 6.
Before there was
Game of Thrones, before Friends, and even before Cheers, there was Dynasty. The early 1980s primetime soap was one of two monocultural hits of the decade, along with Dallas (of “Who shot J.R.?” fame). The United States was obsessed with this show, especially with its season finales that usually contained birth, death, marriage, or a combination of all three. As a mom trying to get her Dynasty on in a time before streaming on demand, Rebecca is totally relatable.
One of the more recent memories revealed for Randall was when he visited
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Like so many of the millennial generation, Mr. Rogers was one of the first shows to teach him letters and numbers, to be kind and generous, and to accept all your neighbors. Kevin might not have been as into it as Randall, but we all know who has the better taste in TV. 05 Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Kate watches a lot of TV as a teen, and for a good reason. The late 1990s were a goldmine of teen girl-oriented shows, especially on The WB. Of course, Teen Kate watched
Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So did every girl her age in 1997. Too bad she didn’t have a crew to support her as Buffy did, but I suppose two older brothers and Rebecca are enough.
While Kate is watching Buffy, her mother is watching the 1990s era TV aimed directly at the 30-something crowd:
E.R. Rebecca mentions to Ben that she’s been sitting home watching way too much of it. So were most moms her age — that’s how George Clooney conquered Hollywood.
Titanic in 1997. Some people saw it many, many times. In a time before streaming, when movies would stay in the theaters until people got tired of them, Titanic ran for more than a year. It was just a matter of which Pearson went and saw it. Honestly, that it wasn’t Kate every weekend for three months straight is the real shock here. Instead, it’s Randall, with his first real girlfriend, Allison. That they spend most of it making out? Yeah, that tracks too.
The movie Sophie and Kevin famously went to see the night Jack died was the 1997 classic
Good Will Hunting, which launched both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s careers. That the two didn’t know how the movie ended until 2019? Well, that’s a little odd, but considering the circumstances, absolutely understandable.
This is the series Kate claims she'll be watching with her BFF the weekend she has the abortion while Rebecca and Randall are in NYC. But for a touch of authenticity, note she doesn't actually say they'll be
watching it; she says they'll "make fun of it." That's because Dawson's Creek wasn't a universally beloved series — at least not until it reached Season 4 and the 2000s. In the beginning, it was the show everyone hate-watched, long before that term was even invented. This Is Us doesn’t ever show anyone watching The Princess Bride. Instead, the film is such a classic, the series whips out “Storybook Love,” a song from the movie. That’s how deeply embedded This Is Us producers assume the film is in pop culture. (They’re right.)
One of the most recent pop culture moments has the Pearsons watch
Jerry Maguire in two different eras, in 1999 and then in 2021. What’s interesting is how well the movie manages to age for those watching, or at least for Kevin and Randall, who both deeply internalized the experience the first time, but in different ways. Who knew Tom Cruise was so powerful? Grey’s Anatomy is simply an “of the air” pop-cultural touchstone in the Pearson households, with moments like Beth telling Randall he’s “her person” and Kate referencing coming home and watching it every Thursday years back.
One of my favorite
This Is Us movie references is one that never refers to the film by name: the “Tom Hanks movie” Rebecca and the kids go see at the top of Season 2 after she and Jack separate. Hanks’ filmography only has one film that was in theaters at the time: That Thing You Do! Considering the movie is an earworm waiting to be stuck in your head for weeks after, no wonder it turned Rebecca off of Hanks forever after.
Everyone knows Randall is all about Thanksgiving, and even better, Thanksgiving traditions. His current favorite is a terrible mid-80s film,
Police Academy 3. It’s a movie from back when sequels meant “redundant retread of a movie that was barely tolerable the first time.” Thank heavens that tradition seems to be over.
In the present day, prestige TV is all the rage, and, notably, the Pearsons watch all the big ones. For instance, they watch
Watchmen, the HBO superhero series showcasing an alternative reality in which reparations happened. The critically acclaimed series was one of the best shows about race in America in 2019. It’s no surprise Randall and Beth would watch Watchmen or that Beth would be watching ahead without Randall to check out Dr. Manhattan, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
Grey’s, Euphoria is a passing reference to the sort of TV that’s going on in houses with teenagers, aka Randall and Beth’s. It’s so popular, even Annie has seen it, so when she says her math teacher looks like Zendaya, Beth stops and asks: “Wait, cute Spider-Man Zendaya or HBO drugged-out Zendaya?” Let’s hope it’s the former.
How big is
Bridgerton in the real world? According to Netflix, it's the most-watched show on the streaming service ever. How big is Bridgerton in the Pearsons' world? So big that a mainstream movie star like Kevin can't wait to get to Episode 6.
The best part? He knows
why Episode 6 is the most crucial episode of Bridgerton. 18
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
From Randall joking about Kevin trying to land a role in the world’s most extensive superhero universe to Beth asking about “
Spider-Man era Zendaya,” these movies are part of the fabric of the cultural landscape the Pearsons live in. Let’s hope Kevin gets cast in one of the movies soon. 19 The Great British Baking Show
It started as a PBS staple, but
The Great British Bake Off, known in the U.S. as The Great British Baking Show, was the reality show that kicked off a new era of nice. During pandemic times, comfort cooking competitions became one of America’s favorite shows to unwind in front of, especially the latest “baking bubble” season. The show is so popular that not only do Kevin and Madison watch it, but over at Kate’s house, they’re streaming it too. 20
News & Current Events (Super Bowls, The Moon Landing, Etc.)
This Is Us is a show about one family’s history and the lives they lived during the different eras of America. That means they experience significant moments in history, and they did it the same way everyone else did: watching it on TV. They are sports nuts whose lives revolve around the All-American sport of football, with critical moments of their lives tied to Steelers games and Super Bowls. And when it comes to current events, they’ve watched it all, from the moon landing to the Vietnam War draft to the Black Lives Matter protests. The Pearsons learned it all from watching TV. Just like us.