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In Defense of the Cheap Cry

The hit show ‘This Is Us’ proves there is a market for emotional manipulation. Why can’t we admit that it is entertaining, too?

(NBC)
(NBC)

“If you need a good cry, go see Manchester by the Sea,” a friend advised me, sometime in November. I did need a good cry, and I love crying — who doesn’t? So I enlisted a friend and we sat next to each other in a dark theater and wept. I could barely get through that movie. Every time Michelle Williams spoke, I started audibly sobbing. If I ever renounce society and move to a cabin in the Berkshires to be alone and sort through my issues, it will be because of that scene in the police station, which I am thinking about now, tearfully. For hours afterward, my friend and I tried to relax with a glass of wine, and that didn’t even help — we couldn’t really talk to one another. We had been through something. It was as if someone or something had died, and actually something did: our ability to be happy. That was not, as they say, a good cry.

A good cry, in my opinion, is best illustrated by the TV show This Is Us, the NBC family drama that has not only perfected the cheap cry — an easy, emotionally manipulative experience that does not demand a high emotional tariff from those involved — but has also elevated the form. Just look at the ratings: An average of 9 million viewers an episode watch this show mostly because it makes them sob. And how do we know they cry? Because proudly tweeting about ugly crying and blubbering are definitely part of the weekly experience. Thanks to the Kleenex-strewn narrative of This Is Us, we can all finally admit that the cheap cry is nothing to be ashamed about. It is a great form of entertainment.

People scoff at the idea of an easy cry, because it’s traditionally the sort of emotional experience that accompanies movie adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels or Hallmark card commercials or videos of tiny animals learning to walk after they’ve been taken away from their mother. The formula for a cheap cry is exemplified by the combination of Izzie, Denny, and Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy: a carefully constructed string of events to make people sob into a bowl of pasta for 15 minutes. The experience doesn’t require any thought, or real reckoning, or even acknowledgement; it’s an immediate reaction to a stimulus, like a doctor knocking your knee with that reflex hammer.

This Is Us follows in the Shondaland traditions, largely because people are bonded in how much they feel at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays. It’s a family drama, which means multiple crying triggers: aging parents, sibling bonding, sibling rivalries, birth, death, marriage, and so on. The music is totally forgettable, whether it’s by Mandy Moore or by an anonymous soft-rock band, but swells in the right moments. There’s also the fact that the whole show looks like it was run through a Valencia Instagram filter (the most nostalgic one) so the audience is visually primed to feel a little wistful and misty before anyone ever speaks.

The choice of emotional scenarios is also pitch-perfect. This Is Us sticks carefully to feel-good cries: overcoming weight-loss and fitness obstacles cries; romantic grand gesture cries; inevitable loss of a parent cries; Mandy Moore cries; childhood victory or disappointment cries; easily solved sibling-rivalry cries; and, of course, my parents did the best they could cries. There is no room (not yet, anyway) for 2017 politics, murder, war, or anything too psychologically demanding.

Take, for example, Randall (the very great Sterling K. Brown) and his aforementioned father, William. Randall is the adopted black son; he’s always been searching for a missing piece of himself. He eventually finds his father — a dying, destitute musician who had no choice but to abandon his son 40 years ago — and the two take a road trip to Memphis that would get at least 300 likes on Instagram. Then (spoiler alert) William dies right at the end, his relationship with his son repaired, and thus his entire life fulfilled.

The sad beauty of that plotline, and all the stories on the show, is that one season in, they’re just shallow enough to avoid specific, painful references for the viewer. You can recognize a human emotion — i.e., That character lost her father, I too have lost something, or That character loves his high school girlfriend but can’t make it work, I have also loved — but probably not your own life. The emotional superficiality is what separates This Is Us from the gritty prestige dramas and psychological journeys of the world, and also what makes people take it less seriously. Happily, it is also what entertains and soothes me most. It’s a release. You can drink a glass of wine after it, or even during it.

I guarantee that the last two episodes of the first season of This Is Us will be soundtracked by the rushing river of audience tears. That’s as it should be. The cheap cry offers something indulgent and comforting, the same way you felt as a teenager listening to Jeff Buckley while writing lovesick poetry. It allows you to shed some water weight, slough off some emotional detritus like dead skin, and feel lighter. The only profound sadness you might feel is knowing that you’ll have to wait until next fall for another good cry.