I Know This Much Is True

TV review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
I Know This Much Is True TV Poster Image
Downbeat, lovely book-based drama deals with mental illness.

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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Messages of tolerance and acceptance are woven through this drama, and empathy and communication is shown to unravel most problems -- or at least instrumental in accepting and dealing with the issues. This show takes trauma seriously, and shows how it can linger and infect even positive situations. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Family members have tortured but loving relationships. Dominick supports his brother in every way he can, even when it's very difficult on a personal level. Stepdad Ray is unkind and somewhat abusive to Dominick and Thomas, even when the pair are adults. Thomas is given dignity and respect, even though his emotions and actions are atypical and sometimes actively harmful. 

Violence

Violence is infrequent but can be very disturbing, like a scene in which a character loses a limb; we see an axe sawing through flesh, blood, gore, a bloody stump. Several important deaths, including one of a very young child, drive plotlines in this series; we see grieving relatives, hospital beds, medical caregivers, beeping machines. In several scenes, characters are in mortal danger, like one in which a man runs onto a busy road and is almost hit by a car. 

Sex

Characters kiss and talk about sex; a broken marriage forms a central plotline. One character is having sex with a (somewhat distant) family member and covertly allows this family member to watch she and her boyfriend having sex. 

Language

Language includes "f--k," "a--hole," "s--t," and "goddammit." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several characters smoke cigarettes; adults routinely drink beers and alcohol at home. At one point, a character who appears somewhat loose and sloppy is told not to drive, that she's "wasted." Despite being offered a ride home or to have a cab called, she drives away recklessly in her own car (which is presented as evidence that she's unstable and foolish). 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that I Know This Much Is True is a drama series adapted from the 1998 novel of the same name by Wally Lamb. It concerns a pair of twin brothers, Dominic and Thomas Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), who weather family and other traumas in the late 1980s in a small Connecticut town. One character, Thomas, has paranoid schizophrenia and his feelings and needs are taken seriously; family members, including Dominick, advocate for him. The series opens with an act of bloody violence; we see an axe, blood, gore, and then a bloody stump of a limb. Family deaths, including that of a very young child, drive much of this series' drama and show how trauma can cause long-term damage. Sexual visuals are generally confined to kissing and flirting, but a subplot concerns an HIV-positive character having an incestuous relationship who covertly lets her sexual partner watch her having sex with her boyfriend. Adults drink liquor and beer at home; a character drives home drunk. Several character smoke cigarettes frequently. Language includes "f--k," "a--hole," "s--t," and "g--dammit." Messages of empathy, communication, tolerance, and acceptance are woven through this drama, which does a creditable job demonstrating trauma's effects over time, and how coming to terms with one's past can improve their outlook for the future.  

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What's the story?

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Wally Lamb, I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE stars Mark Ruffalo as Thomas Birdsey, a paranoid schizophrenic man who lives in a group home, as well as Dominick Birdsey, his typically abled identical twin brother. When we meet Dominick and Thomas, Thomas has just done something drastic that is about to land him in a miserable facility for the mentally ill. Dominick is struggling through the breakup of his marriage to Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), from lingering grief over the death of his mother (Melissa Leo), and from other traumatic life experiences. When Dominick begins seeing a therapist (Archie Panjabi) to make sense of his fractured life and emotions, he begins to work through some of his terrible experiences, and starts to see a pathway to a happier life. 

Is it any good?

Affecting and absorbing, if a bit of a bummer, this drama's makes you care about the troubles of its characters without gimmicks or cliched plotlines about crime or mayhem. I Know This Much Is True certainly begins with a bang: While late '80s library patrons hunt for books and use the microfiche machine, Thomas rocks back and forth at a library table, reciting vaguely Biblical gibberish before raising an axe. People flee, scream -- and the axe comes down, and now Dominick has one more terrible way he's connected to his difficult yet lovable twin brother. That's far from Dominick's only tragic issue, though, and as we get to know him, the camera often zooms in to examine Ruffalo's expressive face in extreme sympathetic closeup.

He's plenty good enough to bear the scrutiny, and so is the rest of the cast; so good, in fact, that it becomes a temptation to not think much about what we're seeing, but just to let the fantastic performances wash over you. Rob Huebel, generally cast only in comedic roles, is appealing as Dominick's best pal, an insecure actor. Kathryn Hahn is reliably on-note as Dominick's ex-wife (and the holder of one of Dominick's saddest secrets). Archie Panjabi has crackling chemistry with Ruffalo as the therapist that begins helping Dominick unravel the many strands of his trauma. In an era when dark dramas tend to involve antiheroes and over-the-top scenarios, a downbeat character study is a hard sell, but I Know This Much Is True is rendered so skillfully that viewers who pause to give it a look won't be able to stop looking. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about mental illness, about how people with mental illness need to be treated, and about how our treatment of mental illness has changed since the period I Know This Much Is True was set. Was Thomas given the treatment he needed? How did the system fail him? What part did his family play in his illness? 

  • How does I Know This Much Is True compare to other shows about family relationships and human connection? Is it making an obvious attempt to be different, and does it work?

  • How do the characters in I Know This Much Is True demonstrate communication and empathy? Why are these important character strengths?

TV details

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For kids who love dark drama

Character Strengths

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