This Is Us loves a pop culture reference. From the actual teams that played in the 1998 Super Bowl to Titanic being a huge hit at that very same time, actual events, people, TV shows, and music are mentioned during every episode. These references undoubtedly help viewers relate to the story, but with This Is Us moving its storyline into the future, the show won't be able to use them in the same way. And that presents a potentially awkward problem. After all, when it comes to how connected we feel to the characters and stories, these references play a big role, and in the future stories we won't have them.
The titular "Us" in This Is Us refers to the Pearson family; at the center are mother and father Rebecca and Jack, and their three children, Randall, Kevin, and Kate. But it also extends beyond them — so far, to Jack and Rebecca's parents and also to Randall's two daughters. This show is an East of Eden-style saga, but instead of farm life and a house burned down by a psychotic daughter, we have Pittsburgh and a house burned down by a slow cooker. At this point, we know that the This Is Us story will stretch at least as far back as Jack's childhood in the 1950s (really, we even got a glimpse of his grandfather, so perhaps the show will go way further back in time) up to nearly a hundred years later when Randall's daughter Tess is an adult. And throughout the series so far we've gotten sign after sign of the times.
But while the story is focused on the Pearson family, the thing that really draws a viewer in is how universal the stories are. The "Us" is all of us. (Kevin, thank you for explaining this with your lovely painting.) We've all been through deaths and marriages and witnessed or experienced struggles with our bodies, or with addiction, or with anxiety, like The Big Three have. But aside from the life experiences, there are specific moments from real world pop culture that we've all seen. We have family members who fought in Vietnam, we all know Alanis Morissette was a big deal in the '90s, and, as the most recent episode beautifully showed, generations of us have all read Goodnight Moon.
The stories and themes in This Is Us are relatable, and they're always going to be, but the pop culture references keep the story grounded. This Is Us is known for being an incredibly emotional show to watch. Each week fans joke about how many boxes of tissues they'll need to make it through the latest episode. But while a character’s death or struggle with substance abuse is objectively difficult to watch, the fact that we know these characters exist in our world (or something close to it) make the situations even more universal. This Is Us is very heavy, and the pop culture references can both provide moments of lightness and also make viewers connect to situations they maybe haven't experienced first-hand simply because they understand the world in which these situations are happening.
A perfectly placed pop culture reference can tell us that not only were Kate and Randall mourning the loss of their dad as teenagers, but they were doing it in 1998 while watching the first season of Sex and the City. When someone in your life passes away, or you struggle with your career or with a relationship, you aren't doing these things in a vacuum; you're doing them as the world moves on outside of you, pop songs and current TV shows playing in the background. It's that specificity that makes the stories all the more real. That makes them really about us — when we were kids in the '90s or teens in the aughts, when we were adults in 2018, and when our parents and grandparents before us went through all of the same things themselves.
That's why when This Is Us made its first jump to the far future at the end of the Super Bowl episode, it was so disconcerting. The show loves to surprise viewers and push the envelope — introducing a storyline that showed Randall about 15 years older at the end of the same episode where we found out how Jack died was doing just that — but it also raised the question of how many glimpses of the future we'll get and what the show will do with them.
Series creator Dan Fogelman has talked about the move into the future and it sounds like we'll be getting quite a bit more; the secret is when that will be. "We didn’t do it as a one-off," Fogelman told Deadline back in February, "...it’s safe to say the future can play a big part in seasons to come."
He expanded on plans for the future in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, and said looking beyond present day "was always part of [his] initial pitch." He explained, "Right now we tend to go, ‘Here’s how the past is commenting on the present.’ But what happens when our present becomes the past, to the near future? What if we could hop into the stories of these characters 10 years later and figure out how they got from A to B, the same way we have with the past?" And as shown in the flash-forwards from Tuesday night's Season 2 finale, so far, this means figuring out how Kevin and Beth's cousin Zoe got together and what they're going to do in Vietnam; finding out what went on between Kate and Toby's wedding and him either becoming sick or sinking back into depression; and who older Randall and adult Tess are going to go visit — the situation that is the furthest in the future of all of these.
This Is Us has already proven it can handle multiple story lines spanning different time periods, so it can probably handle the future just fine, too. The thing that will change, though — and that has to change because none of us know what the year 2035 will hold — is the references to current events.
While the scenes that take place a decade or more down the line could include references to the pop culture of the past (and maybe even play them for laughs — is Beyoncé on the oldies station now?), they won't be able to include any current pop culture for obvious reasons. Of course, the show could make some up — something it's done before with things like the show Kevin starred in, The Manny — but those tend to not land the same way. While we can laugh and think, "Ha! The Manny is poking fun at other laugh-track sitcoms that actually exist," when we get a scene like the one where Randall and Kate talk about bonding over Sex and the City after their dad died, it hits home in a different, much more emotional way. A scene like that involves something that viewers actually experienced themselves. Plus, making up things that are happening in the future is always tricky because it invites viewers to voice the inevitable, "That would never happen."
This Is Us could also do without these type of references altogether in the future scenes, but depending on how many of those scenes we get and the length of them, this might be jarring compared to the constant stream of references we get in the stories set in the present day and in the past. If we just get a couple short scenes in the future here and there, like the two Tess and Randall scenes we've already seen, it might not matter. But, based on Fogelman's quotes and the fact that future Tess and Randall now have a major cliffhanger, it sounds like that won't be the case. And if Tess and Randall — or any other characters — are going through traumatic and emotional events in the future (they are, obviously), viewers won't be able to be as grounded in the time period as we are now, which could potentially mean the emotional impact is different. This will especially be the case if new references and technology are created; it would be very easy to be distracted from the story if there's some new holographic cell phone popping up.
One thing that might serve This Is Us well as it moves into the future is how few direct mentions of social issues and politics there have been. While This Is Us has explored race and socioeconomics, it's done so in a broad sense. We haven't gotten direct mentions of Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, for example, and one of the only political mentions so far was the Obama-Biden signs at Randall and Beth's house in an episode set in 2008. This means that This Is Us, if it needs to, could still somewhat exist in a world separate from the real one viewers live in. Still, since so much else in the show is rooted in reality, it's not a stretch for fans to assume that the 2018 of the show is the same 2018 of the real world, which in turn means that the 2035 of the show needs to be in line with what could reasonably happen in the 2035 of the real world.
If any show can deal with taking a story that is very much rooted in reality into the future, it's This Is Us. It has proven that existing in a huge span of time and with a wide range of characters isn't an issue, and not being able to mention pop culture is no reason to not keep on expanding. While This Is Us will likely not show a dismal future that many of us can't help but be worried about in 2018, the show will have to be careful with what it says and doesn't say. The future we see will still have to make sense based on the past and present we already know — the one that already exists in two seasons of the show and the one from the real world that the show is so deeply connected to.