On the episode of NBC’s “This Is Us,” that aired October 18, 2017, viewers were again subjected to the “casual” racism of Rebecca’s mother.
Janet, played by Elizabeth Perkins, stopped by for a visit and found herself staying longer than expected when her car became buried in a snowstorm. As usual, Janet’s passive-aggressive comments loomed large in the house, but it was her actions toward the Pearsons’ adopted African American child Randall (Lonnie Chavis) — buying him a third basketball as a gift, in disbelief that he would be the Pearson child to get into private school — that finally pushed Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to her breaking point. She called her mother a racist, and chicken pox-infected Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) began digging her car out of the snow to hasten her departure. Only on her way out did Janet start to see the light, which Randall smartly told her, “Took you long enough.”
Below, Entertainment Weekly’s Dan Snierson spoke to the show’s creator Dan Fogelman about the storyline:
The past story brought the return of Rebecca’s mother. She’s back and more racist than ever! But the subtle kind of racism. Usually, we see kids on TV being taught about overt racism. Was that something you were specifically reacting to? What interested you in delving into the challenge of these parents explaining to their adopted boy of a different race the insidious nature of casual, couched, entrenched racism?
All of this stuff — and generationally — is so complicated and so loaded. It’s something that is so complex that when you talk about it to a little kid, it’s even more complicated. I don’t have kids yet, and I’m not one that would be the first to be able to give a conversation on what it is to be black and to experience racism, nor are Jack and Rebecca. So they’re struggling with a complicated topic that they’re already in a difficult position to comprehend or explain in the right way. We tried to be really careful with it. We have a really diverse writing staff and we tried to attack all viewpoints and not turn this into an afterschool special. I’m really proud of the job that all the actors did and the way the writers handled it.
It’s heartbreaking to see little Randall (Lonnie Chavis) have his eyes opened to a crueler world than he thought he lived in, and watch him try to process what his parents are saying, only to leave the room defeated and sad. What do you remember about shooting that scene?
I’m glad that stuck with you. We actually had a much longer scene written and shot, and it was beautiful. There was a lot more conversation between Jack and Rebecca and little Randall there that went even further into detail, and as we were editing it, we realized less was a little bit more there, and you didn’t need to say a lot. Because the scene was really about this little boy’s eyes opening up to something he really wasn’t that aware of, and kind of turning the tables on him. [His] being sad and overwhelmed by it and just wanting to leave the conversation felt really effective to us.
By saying, “You’re racist and I don’t want you in our lives,” Rebecca took a massive stand here.
It is. And I think you have a couple of really complicated things happening here. We were playing with levels and how far we were going to take Mom, and a question of: Is Rebecca acting appropriately? Is she under-reacting? Is she overreacting? Should Mom have been out of that house the second she gave Randall his third basketball? Should Rebecca have given Mom a talking to but not been as severe? It’s a very complicated thing, and I find Elizabeth Perkins as the grandmother in a strange way really heartbreaking at the end of the episode as she’s admitting to a character flaw that she’s both aware of and unable to completely work through where it’s coming from in her own mind. That’s not to say you’re supposed to identify with her, but as she says, in her mind, hopefully, this is the beginning of a breakthrough, for this character. It’s left for the audience to decide if that’s too little too late, if we accept that breakthrough if we don’t want to accept that breakthrough, and where Rebecca and the family are going to fall on that spectrum.
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