Tuesday night’s This Is Us, “Six Thanksgivings,” marked a few landmark events for multiple folks in the Pearson orbit. Back in the 1970s, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) saved a little Vietnamese boy despite brotherly pressure not to, earning him that infamous necklace. In the present day, Miguel Rivas (Jon Huertas) stood up for himself and his wife, Rebecca Pearson-Rivas (Mandy Moore), in the face of his judgey adult kids. It’s the most personality we’ve seen from Miguel in three seasons.
But no one had a bigger “Thanksgivings” than the family’s tweenage member, Tess Pearson (Eris Baker). During the episode, Tess quietly announces she is queer in one of the most subtle moments of television’s least subtle show. That small moment might just mark a turning point in how people talk about “coming on” on television.
There is nothing This Is Us enjoys more than teasing out major reveals over countless episodes, complete with teeny-tiny clues viewers must obsess over. Remember Jack’s 30-episode death mystery? Or the lead-up to Zoe’s explanation of her abusive childhood just last week? Well, Tess doesn’t get that kind of overwrought treatment in confirming she may be more interested in girls than boys. Instead, the admission is handled in much the same way as the tween getting her period, which also happens in the episode. It’s an important signal that one milestone is just as natural as the other, and doesn’t need to be a capital-T Thing.
No one is surprised Tess’s time of the month finally came, and no one should surprised she might be a lesbian or bisexual.
Tess’ announcement arrives towards the end of “Thanksgivings,” which was directed by Catherine Hardwicke of Thirteen and original Twilight movie fame. “Pretty soon you’re gonna have your first kiss. And your first boyfriend,” Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) conspiratorially tells her newly-menstruating niece. Tess’ face gets serious for a moment and then she adds, “Or… girlfriend.” Kate doesn’t miss a beat, agreeing, “Or girlfriend.” That’s it. No big conversation or sit-down confrontation necessary — just easy, no-questions-asked acceptance. Tess couldn’t look more relieved by Kate’s non-reaction. End scene.
When we return to the Pearson household, Tess asks Kate not to tell her parents about her admission. Kate agrees, but assures the tween that mom Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and dad Randall (Sterling K. Brown) will love her no matter whom she chooses to love. It’s sweet but respectful, which was the entire point of the moment. As This Is Us executive producer, and queer teen rom-com Love, Simon writer, Isaac Aptaker told Entertainment Weekly, “That wasn’t a premeditated decision to tell Kate, [Tess] kind of got swept up in this conversation, so then [she had] a second to think about it and go, ‘Uh oh, I’m not ready yet.’ She needed to make sure that Kate got that.”
And once Kate “got that,” everyone moves on. Kate focuses on her new husband Toby’s (Chris Sullivan) last-ditch effort to save Thanksgiving dinner after he stepped on the turkey: picking up a smorgasbord of vaguely seasonal fast food. Tess changes in time for the annual family feast, which ends up being a delightful, stress-free meal.
This entire journey is a far cry from the television coming-out scenes of the past, which more often than not became Very Special Moments in their respective episodes. You might be heartless if Kurt (Chris Colfer) coming out to his dad in Glee season 1 doesn’t a bring a tear to your eye. Callie (Sara Ramirez) battling her homophobic father (Hector Elizondo) with bible verses over her bisexuality will forever be one of Grey’s Anatomy’s most memorable moments. Ellen DeGeneres changed the course of television with her character’s historic coming out on Ellen in 1997.
But we’re now in a world when a sitcom character — or star — confirming they’re queer doesn’t lead to the cancelation of their show. Instead, we’re finally living in a culture where LGBTQ+-friendly television wins awards, gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, and the nation can elect its first openly gay governor. That means our conversations about coming out, and how young people across the TV board think about it, needs to evolve.
Tess’ low-key conversation about her budding sexuality proves that pop cultural era has begun, especially since she’s not the first TV character to “come out” in such a casual way this season. In one of the first episodes of A Million Little Things, youngest character Danny Dixon (Chance Hurstfield) confirms he is gay by gamely pointing out his crush to pseudo uncle Gary Mendez (James Roday) at a school event. Over on Grey’s Anatomy, Levi “Glasses” Schmidt (Jake Borelli) figured out his sexuality without ever really feeling like he had to come in the first place. Instead, he jumped right to making out with Dr. Nico Kim (Alex Landi) in random parts of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
After a packed year of intense television, this kind of growth is something we can all be thankful for.
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