Some thoughts on last night’s Very Special This Is Us coming up just as soon as I eat the candy bar…
Above all else, This Is Us simultaneously exists to surprise its viewers and make them cry. In the case of “Super Bowl Sunday,” which finally revealed exactly how Jack died after close to two seasons of clues and twists, the former got in the way of the latter.
The hour had several moments that should have been emotional powerhouses, particularly Rebecca struggling to accept what the doctor (played by the great Bill Irwin) was telling her, and Rebecca telling Miguel to man up or walk around the block before she went inside to ruin her children’s lives. (I did not know Mandy Moore had that in her, but my goodness did she.) But the series had spent so long teasing out the exact timing and circumstances of Jack’s death that it turned it into an intellectual exercise for me, down to what was meant to be a harrowing opening sequence of “Super Bowl Sunday.” Instead of feeling the terror of Rebecca, Randall, and Kate, I felt like I was being invited to guess the precise moment when Jack’s life would run out: Oh, is he going to die saving Kate?… No, he’s clearly going to burn to death while trying to save the dog… No, he somehow survived that, so when are we going to get to the fireworks factory is he going to kick the bucket already? It was easy to empathize with Rebecca’s moment of denial, because at that point, I wouldn’t have put it past the show to reveal that Bill Irwin wasn’t actually a doctor at all and was running a con on Rebecca, or that he was a terrible doctor who failed to notice that Jack’s heart was still beating, that Jack was actually a Time Lord with two hearts, etc.
The series was introduced as a combination tearjerker and puzzle box, with the two sides merging beautifully at the end of the pilot episode when we found out Jack and Rebecca’s relationship to the Big Three. So I can understand Dan Fogelman trying to continually surprise the audience throughout these three seasons. But the show was an instant hit, and there came a point fairly early in season one where the narrative sleight of hand started to undermine the pathos, where it becomes too easy to focus on how the trick is done (or that there’s a trick at all) rather than the poignant thing happening to one of the characters the audience has already invested in. (Or to Kevin.) As an episode airing after the Super Bowl, dealing with the long-promised death of the most important man in the lives of the other Pearsons, the stage was never bigger for the series, but it was also this trickeration versus melodrama conundrum at its biggest, too. Jack’s death no longer existed as a keystone moment for Rebecca and the kids; now it was A Television Event, with 31 hours of build-up, and the actuality of it simply couldn’t compete with the long introduction, even with Jack playing superhero one last time in rescuing his wife, two of his kids, and even that darned dog.
(Was this the plan all along? There was plenty of theorizing about 9/11, Jack’s drinking problem, etc., but this season leaned pretty hard into Jack Pearson hagiography, down to him making like Jose Canseco the night before the big game. Having Jack die as a (slightly delayed) result of playing superhero allows the family to wallow in grief without any complications about Jack’s flaws, but both Jack and their grief become less interesting the more virtuous and perfect he becomes. Kate blaming herself for 20 years over something that’s not her fault speaks to her insecurity and narcissism — neither of which is too far off from Kevin’s — but there’s a lot more meat on the bone if he dies under less pure circumstances, and/or if he isn’t largely treated as the greatest man who ever lived. William was rendered fairly saintly by the end, too, but was allowed more dramatic shading overall, and his death had much more impact not only because it was told in straightforward fashion, but because his relationship with Randall was so fraught.)
The most emotionally affecting piece of the whole episode was, itself, another twist: the revelation that the social worker we’d been getting occasional glimpses of was actually Randall and Beth’s daughter Tess as an adult in the future, inspired to go into the field by her family’s experience with Deja. It was Fogelman pulling the rug out from under the audience again, but doing it swiftly — within the episode, and only after a few glimpses of adult Tess, rather than something going on and on. But just as I was excited at the thought of spending more time with another generation of the family — and by the show leaning into by far its most effective character subset (even if Randall’s material hasn’t been great this season) — I realized that if the future timeline becomes a regular thing, Fogelman and company can just use it to tease things happening in the present, in the same way the present-day scenes were once used to tease out Jack’s death.
This season as a whole has been something of a slog, falling victim to the problem a lot of family dramas face without a clear story engine coming from somebody’s job: it can become really easy to just turn into misery porn and let all the characters suffer, for lack of a clear narrative goal for any or all. William’s return provided just enough of a spine for most of season one (even for Kevin, to a degree), but this season hasn’t had the same, and attempts to flesh out the two weakest characters in Kevin and Kate have been mixed, at best.
“Super Bowl Sunday” at least clears the decks of the Jack question, even if it wasn’t really an ideal choice for this big ratings showcase, in the same way that “Phase One” from Alias was probably a bad idea for that night, despite it being one of the best episodes to air after the Super Bowl. It was so focused on paying off a long-standing mystery/tragedy that, even with a bit more exposition than usual for the sake of the borrowed audience, it didn’t seem designed to give the newcomers a reason to return. But even for this long-standing viewer, it was a missed opportunity — or, at least, a reminder that the same elements that made the show a hit, and can make it so effective, can also creatively hamstring it.
What did everybody else think?