Call it the “This Is Us” effect: New shows centering on characters dealing with loss and grief are in abundance this television season.
When Dan Fogelman’s family drama debuted on NBC in Sept. 2016, it was rare for a series, let alone one on a broadcast network, to follow characters whose journeys all centered on being unable to get over the loss of another. “This Is Us” surprised the audience with the reveal that Pearson patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) was deceased in the present-day storyline, after viewers had already deeply invested in him and his family’s relationships with him. The show was an immediate rating success, with the first season averaging 14.7 million total viewers and the second season even growing — to an average of 17.4 million — as storylines dove even deeper into the exploration of grief.
Now new fall shows such as Facebook Watch’s “Sorry for Your Loss,” Showtime’s “Kidding,” ABC’s “A Million Little Things” and even Hulu’s “The First” are hoping viewers will be looking for even more therapy onscreen. They all feature characters struggling to come to terms with the death of a loved one.
“There’s a catharsis we all feel to watch a character go through things. We want to cry sometimes — we want that to feel human and to feel normal — and to cry with her over her loss, you’re of course crying over your loss,” “Sorry for Your Loss” showrunner Lizzy Weiss tells Variety. “The hopefulness that you feel is that you’re still there — that you can bounce back.”
“Sorry for Your Loss,” which was created by Kit Steinkellner, centers on a young widow named Leigh (Elizabeth Olsen) who lost her husband in an “unexpected way” just three months before the show starts.
Since the show is told from Leigh’s perspective, the first few episodes are focused on seeing her put “one foot in front of the other.” The first season takes place only over the course of a few months in order to keep the emotions “raw,” she adds.
“She’s so much in that fog of loss for the first few episodes, it’s, ‘How do I get through the day? How do I move through our apartment? How do I go to class and teach? How do I interact with strangers and pretend it’s normal’?” Weiss says.
Similar to “Sorry for Your Loss” and “This Is Us,” the important deaths at the center of “A Million Little Things” and “Kidding” come as a surprise to the characters, and that unexpected upheaval in their lives sets them on a reflective, emotional path. In “A Million Little Things,” Jon (Ron Livingston) kills himself in the pilot episode, while in “Kidding,” one of Jeff’s (Jim Carrey) twin sons is killed in a car accident.
“I think when you lose somebody too soon, their death can be a catalyst to make you start living,” says “A Million Little Things” creator DJ Nash. “While the show starts with the loss of a friend, it’s very much about how it will influence his friends. … We’re going to watch how their lives are different because of this sort of last gift they got from their friend, this gift of life is ‘precious.'”
“A Million Little Things” was inspired by Nash’s own experience losing a friend to suicide, but he admits that “people grieve in different ways,” which is why ensemble storytelling is so important in dealing with the topic.
“The friends move on different levels with regards to losing their friend,” he says. “That’s what’s interesting, I think, about death: every time you lose someone, it goes back to the other losses you’ve had.”
The process of grieving is baked into the DNA of each show, which are all open-ended. Yet characters must still exhibit moments of growth in order to keep the plot moving.
“Grief and death are interesting topics, but they’re really hard to write 100 episodes [about],” admits “Kidding” creator Dave Holstein, “so what struck me was not to write a show about grief and death specifically but this interesting line I think you can draw between grief and loss, and identity crisis.”
“Kidding” balances Jeff’s two worlds — one in which he is a grieving father with a fractured family, the other in which he is an upbeat, kind, honest children’s television show host who talks to puppets on an almost neon-colored set.
“To me, what felt like a story engine for an existential comedy was that you let the death of [Jeff’s] son precipitate this question of, ‘Who am I? Am I Jeff Pickles or am I Jeff Piccirillo — am I the actor of the role or the role?'” Holstein says. “To begin him in a place of grief — to let that be an inciting emotion — was important to me because when you have someone struggling against grief, what you want for them is for them to reach a place where they’re happy and the world is light again. It provides a nice trajectory because…when we do get to that light, it’s more rewarding and emotional.”
Using death as an “inciting incident” to propel a narrative forward is not something these showrunners are doing flippantly. Weiss had her writers’ room and actors consult with a psychiatrist, Dr. Scott Irwin, about grief and loss. “We wanted to be really responsible,” she says. “Dr. Irwin was able to get rid of any myths but also show us that there was quite a broad range of ways people experience this.”
In fact, one of the ways Dr. Irwin influenced “Sorry for Your Loss” was in explaining that “the five stages of grief we all learn about in high school [are]…not realistic,” she says. “People speed through one, backtrack — it’s all sort of that three steps forward, two steps back kind of thing that happens.”
The “Sorry for Your Loss” Facebook Watch page is also linking to caringinfo.org so that viewers can get help if they’re dealing with their own loss or grief. Nash was adamant about having his cast shoot a PSA about getting help if you are having suicidal thoughts. “We wanted to portray [it] accurately but also provide an outlet,” he says.
All of the showrunners also acknowledge the need to balance their shows’ tones with some comedic moments — not only to allow the audience to breathe but also as a way to truly reflect life.
“Drama and comedy butt up against each other,” Nash says. “Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, you get a reason to laugh, you just have to be open to it. And I think what these characters are experiencing as they’re dealing with their grief, their loss, is sometimes the way you get through that is with a joke.”
Adds Weiss: “One of my favorite moments in the whole season is when a character goes off in sort of a manic way and starts laughing uncontrollably. It’s a moment we got from real life, and we thought, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’ That person took that energy and it came out in inappropriate laughter, and it doesn’t always look like how we think it will.”
That these shows landed on such diverse platforms — from mainstream broadcast to emerging streaming services — reflects the climate of peak TV, with outlets hungry for content. The success of “This Is Us” certainly didn’t hurt, either. But Holstein also credits today’s political climate.
“Let’s not beat around it, I think having Trump in the White House has made television a place for liars,” Holstein says. “I think there’s a climate right now for optimism; there’s a climate for wanting to feel real emotions; there’s a desire for honesty — where there used to be a desire for antiheroes and cynicism and drug dealing and hooker killing. I think that where we are in the world today, it is already that bad for some people that I think there’s a demand to just feel good — or just feel something.”