I’m one of 12 million viewers who tune in to NBC on Tuesday nights with Kleenex to watch “This is Us.” The serial episodic family drama has me hooked. (Interesting note: if you are of my generation and find a similarity between “This is Us” and the 1987-1991 hit “thirtysomething” it’s a close cousin. Ken Olin, who starred in thirtysomething as Michael Steadman is the Executive Producer of This is Us.)
The series thrives because of twisting and, at times, confusing story lines which intertwine and intersect the lives of three siblings: Randall, Kate, and Kevin and their parents, Jack and Rebecca Pearson. The story skips between the trio’s childhood and adulthood and (bring a pen and notebook) requires detective instincts to catch the visual and script clues for plot lines to come.
A supporting character is Kate’s (Chrissie Metz) boyfriend, Toby (Chris Sullivan.) I love Toby. I want to sit my young adult daughter down with HER pen and notebook and say “Here. Take notes. This is a real man. Forget perfect. Look for Toby.” The early season notwithstanding (Toby had a knack for bumbling selfishness and clinging whiney-ness) he has grown into a man who displays the character qualities that a woman doesn’t appreciate until she has lived with a man who, well, lacks those qualities.
Toby would not be picked out of a line-up as GQ man of the year. He is balding and paunchy and dressing up means his shirt is tucked in. (Interesting note #2, Sullivan wears a fat-suit for the part.) I still haven’t figured out what he does for a living as he’s never at work, going to work or coming home from work in the series but – and this is a BIG but – he loves the hell out of Kate. He loves Kate in the best manly sense of the word: he sees her beauty beyond her struggle with her weight and refuses to let her think less of herself because of it. There is a scene when the two are talking of getting married and Kate insists that she doesn’t need the white dress and wedding. Having struggled with weight myself I instinctively know that Kate would LOVE a white dress and wedding but cannot stand the humiliation of finding a dress that fits her. Toby tells her he won’t stand for it: Kate deserves a wedding, she is beautiful and it will be perfect. She is perfect.
Toby is not a pushover. He argues. He has opinions. He finds out that Kate has been secretly binging on junk food and loves her enough to confront her. Minutes after Kate has a miscarriage he remembers that they have ordered a baby item to be delivered to the home. Knowing the pain it will cause Kate to have it delivered he intensely, irrationally, and like a crazed knight in plaid flannel armor accosts the delivery driver to find the package and send it back. He wants a dog. Badly. But he knows that the loss of the family pet caused Kate tremendous pain (one of many childhood losses) and he agrees that having a dog really isn’t that necessary. Spoiler: we find out that Kate turns right around and loves him back with a rescue dog and he is man enough to squeal with delight.
He doesn’t always do or say the right thing. In Season One he ruined Kate’s “watching-the-Super-Bowl-alone” tradition by insisting on joining her (and bringing a friend) but you get the sense that even when his arrows miss the mark his target was lined up with the best intentions. You believe that he wakes up every day asking “how can I show this woman I love her?” You see the bewilderment when nothing Kate does makes sense, but his love for her compels him to walk in her fantasy with her, strong arm around her to provide the soft landing when reality hits. He puts up with her co-dependent relationship with twin brother, Kevin, treading softly but steering firmly in the Pearson “no fly zone.”
What is the message here? First, I’m fully aware it’s television. But the genius writers of “This is Us” have crafted an imperfect character that sends a strong message to young women who have yet to make the mistake of choosing style over substance.
Listen to me girls:
Style is great when an Instagram photo and the virtual applause that follows fills your ego-tank for a moment. Substance is what matters in the real life between Instagram photos: the boring, the mundane, the challenging, the difficult. Substance is the man who knows how to be your rock (and will let you be his) when life is less than stable. Style is great when your self-image is dependent on the approval of your friends, substance is a man who approves of you, regardless of the opinion of your friends. Style works when he shows up because he wants to be there. Substance is the man who never leaves – even when he doesn’t want to be there. Style says I'll do the right thing with a selfie-stick in my hand, substance says I’ll do the right thing when no one is watching.
Does one cancel out the other? No – my prayer for my daughter and adopted daughters is that you find a man whose style is wildly perfect for you…AND his substance makes him deserve you. Don’t assume substance comes with style and don't make the equally faulty assumption that a man with substance doesn't have his own perfect style.
So, choose wisely sweet girls. Style makes for great wedding pictures. Substance makes for a great marriage.