If you have not watched through the post-Super Bowl episode of This Is Us and plan on catching up on the show, then please, I beg of you, don’t read this article (and getting an editor to say that means something).
Part of what makes This Is Us so special is the tension it builds over time and its unpredictable nature, so don’t ruin that for yourself by looking ahead. Now I’ll step off of my soap-box and dive in.
Up to 27 million people, including this writer — whose team had just lost — stayed up after the Super Bowl to catch This Is Us. Let that number sink in for a minute. That many people haven’t watched a post-Super Bowl episode of a scripted series since House aired after the 2008 game.
In their ads, This Is Us has marketed itself as a “once in a generation” series. If just any television drama had the cojones to put that in their own promo, I’d likely write its creators and marketing team off as arrogant, but This Is Us is the most brilliantly crafted network drama — perhaps even just television drama — currently on air, period.
Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’re probably already familiar with Dan Fogelman’s work. Prior to creating This Is Us, the writer-producer was best known for writing Crazy, Stupid, Love. aka the movie where a shirtless Ryan Gosling does the Dirty Dancing lift with Emma Stone.
That pairing actually serves as a great example of the first ingredient in Fogelman’s successful projects: his teams’ strong ability to cast talented performers that have great chemistry together.
In order for This Is Us to succeed, it is vital that we as the audience are able to fully buy into the relationship between Jack and Rebecca Pearson. Episode after episode we have to wallow in their hardships and relish in their successes as we root for them to make it through.
On the surface, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia are unexpected choices to take on these roles. However, both have delivered performances with an emotional intensity capable of subverting any of the audience’s preconceived notions. As Krystal from this season of The Bachelor would say, there’s just no one else on their level.
Fans across the country braced themselves for a devastating blow after the Super Bowl.
Given the creative way in which Fogelman and the rest of the writers play with time, telling the story in media res, we had known what was coming for a while, yet we weren’t sure when it was going to strike.
At last, they clued us in: We would find out how Jack died on his favorite day of the year, Super Bowl Sunday, on the actual evening of Super Bowl Sunday. Yes, that’s how many layers of intentionality are behind every detail of this show.
This episode pulled no punches. It served to emphasize the fact of life that we tend to write off as a platitude but that, at the end of the day, is 100 percent true: No moment is guaranteed.
It seemed like a given that we’d see Jack go back into his family’s flaming home in order to save their adorable rescue dog, only to never make it back out.
But for This Is Us, that would’ve been all too easy. Instead, Jack came out of the house, face covered in soot, not only with the dog but also with most of the family’s precious mementos. Once again, he’s the hero, and the Pearson family thinks they’re out of the woods. Of course, we know they’re not.
Ultimately, Jack dies at the hospital of cardiac arrest due to excessive smoke inhalation. His last conversation with Rebecca is beautiful in all of its simplicity.
He cracks a joke about why she never bought batteries for the smoke detector that would have alerted them of the fire and, just as she goes to grab them snacks and book a hotel room, tells her that she’s blocking his view of the game.
There is no long, dramatic monologue about what he wants for her and their children. There isn’t an intense score alerting us to what is just in the future. Most importantly, as in life, there is no closure. Hence, we feel the wallop of intense pain that hits Rebecca and her children, deep in our guts. Through their fictional experience, we become awakened to the grave nature of our own mortality.
They say hindsight is 20/20. The beauty of This Is Us is that it invites us to observe the glimpses of mundanity that later, when recalled by the Pearsons in adulthood, will come to symbolize so much more.
In its exploration of one family through childhood, the teen years and adulthood, This Is Us is a distant relative of Boyhood. Yet it finds a way to seamlessly convey the significance of each little detail and the ripple effects they continue to have on the “Big Three” much more effectively.
Leading up to this episode, I was concerned that This Is Us, which has become a weekly emotional release for myself and so many others, would jump the shark. But, somehow, they managed to weave together tragedy, humor and the show’s near constant relatability as successfully as ever.
The brilliant thing about This Is Us is that its plot lines and the reactions they elicit rarely, if ever, feel forced. Did I sob as I watched Rebecca realize that she had to “ruin her kids’ lives”?
Yes, but I didn’t feel taken advantage of. It felt true; it resonated with my own love for my family, spoke to my deepest fears, the “What ifs?” of tomorrow that we all have to find a way to grapple with.
Although we’ve learned how Jack dies, many questions remain for the show’s creative team to explore.
I personally am eagerly awaiting a deeper dive into Rebecca’s life as a widow, especially what career she pursues and if she ever returns to her passion of singing in front of live audiences.
Also, when will we get flashbacks that illustrate Jack’s relationship with his brother, who died while they were both serving in Vietnam? In the present day, is Kevin, inspired by confronting his dad’s legacy, finally going to get his shit together? Will we watch Kate and Toby’s wedding anytime soon? Will Randall and Beth remain #relationshipgoals?
I don’t know the answers to any of the above, nor do I know how Fogelman and his peers continue to astonish each week, but you can be sure that as long as they sustain this level of intensity and demonstrate such fine-tuned craftsmanship, I’ll be tuning in.
Check for new episodes of This Is Us every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC. Already on the 15th episode, the show is likely nearing the end of its second season; be on the lookout for more dramatic reveals.