Monday, February 5, 2018

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Every Single Detail About Jack's Death is Revealed in 'Super Bowl Sunday'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.14 "Super Bowl Sunday"

Following a dramatic house fire, the Pearson family will be forever changed on this fateful Super Bowl Sunday.

Jack's death came to define every single aspect of This Is Us. It was revealed as a pivotal turning point in the Pearson family early on in the series run. It became this massive event that set Kevin, Kate and Randall on their current paths in life. Over time, the show has shown that Jack's death didn't exactly create the various problems they've struggled with in life. But it did exacerbate them. It made them the thing that defined their entire existence for a long time. And so, Randall was always seeking perfection, Kevin was chasing fame and appreciation while Kate sought comfort through food. Those are the themes that have been present in their stories throughout every stage of their lives. This show has featured so many different time periods and aspects of this family across the generations. Jack's death was the event that shaped so much. But the fact that it did so while the show had to constantly be talking around what actually happened to him made it a struggle to actually connect with these stories. It mostly made it seem like everything was becoming overly redundant. The show definitely featured Jack as the best father anyone could possibly have. It showed his struggles in life briefly. But it never depicted his death until now. It was a mystery that has been allowed to fester. It's a mystery that some have refused to believe despite the mounting evidence. The show got lost amidst the mystery. Every single detail needed to be teased and explained. And now, the show is airing with the largest platform it will ever have. It's in the episode following the Super Bowl where This Is Us finally provides definitive answers as to what happened to Jack twenty years ago.

It's such a peculiar decision though. It's a pivotal episode for the arc of the show. A reasonable argument can be made for why the creative team decided to wait until this precise moment to provide answers to this mystery. But it also makes it brutal and devastating. It allows the episode to be memorable. But it hardly can play to anyone in the audience who has never seen the show before. Of course, that's probably just a small (but not insignificant) fraction considering how broadly seen the show has been - even if people have fallen off the wagon in Season 2. But it's just so odd for any viewer to be coming off the high and excitement of the Super Bowl to an episode of television all about the death of a lead character. It's a death that has been teased and teased and teased by the show both in the context of the episodes and in the promotion. After awhile, it all just became so icky. It was weird and gross that the show kept building up this moment of a character tragically dying. It's gotten to the point where NBC actively asked the audience to tweet out the moment when it was actually happening onscreen. That's just so horrifying and off-putting. It goes against the emotional sincerity of the moment. But again, the show forced these issues into existence because it kept elongating this mystery. It knew exactly what it was doing the entire time. And now, it has to deal with those consequences where the big moment doesn't land nearly as well as it could have because it was dragged out for too long.

At this point in the life of the show, I'm just ready to move on from Jack. That's disappointing to say. But everything has been about his death and how it has shaped his children for so long. It's overwhelmed every other aspect of the series. But now, I'm more intrigued by seeing how the family coped in the immediate aftermath and how the children are moving beyond it in the present day. Even in 2018, the Big Three are still obsessing over this moment. Right now, they say they are talking about it more than usual because the Super Bowl always brings up these complicated feelings. Kate wallows in misery, Kevin avoids it completely and Randall celebrates the big game in honor of his father. But that's disingenuous because the show actively points out how every single action that the siblings do is somehow informed by their father. That also makes it apparent that even though Jack technically dies in this episode, he isn't really going anywhere. He will still linger over everything because his influence is that great. William died last season but Ron Cephas Jones is still credited as a series regular - even though this season hasn't offered him anything to actually do (at least not enough to create awards buzz like in the first season). So, Jack isn't really going to go anywhere. That makes the elongation of this arc even more frustrating. The show was reaching for new obstacles to introduce to complicate this whole story. But the audience could still put all of the pieces together on what was going to happen to Jack.

The only remaining question was if the show was going to throw out some out-of-nowhere twist to completely change the audience's perception of Jack's death? It doesn't. He still ultimately dies from the fire. The opening act of this episode centers completely on Jack waking up and needing to rescue his family from this tragedy. He gets his big hero moment by rescuing Rebecca, then Randall, then Kate and then the dog. It always seemed clear that Jack would die because he has to go back into the burning house to rescue the dog. That's the way that Kate has internalized her feelings on this event. To a certain extent, that is true. He goes back in because he loves his daughter. He doesn't want her to lose everything in this fire. He's extremely heroic that way. He puts himself at risk in order to protect his family and their cherished memories. He gives that to them. But it's also a selfish desire that ultimately robs the family of him forever. When he eventually dies, it's at the hospital where he has a heart attack due to smoke inhalation. He seems okay enough for Rebecca to go call a hotel and pick up snacks at the vending machine. It's interesting how the focus of this massive event is on the family's reaction to it and not the audience seeing it from Jack's perspective. There isn't a scene with Jack gasping for air and dying without his family surrounding him with love. Instead, it's all seen from Rebecca's perspective. She's just on the phone with the audience seeing the background noise of something happening. The doctor comes to deliver the news and she doesn't believe it until she sees the body. It's out-of-focus in the background so the camera can just linger on Rebecca's reaction. That's the most important thing here. It's the show wisely knowing that it's more important to see the devastation amongst the living then just adding to the agony of its tragic hero.

Unsurprisingly, Mandy Moore is the true hero of this hour. She's the one delivering the most devastating and moving performance. The highlights of this episode all come from whenever she's on the screen. Rebecca is the one with the most personal connection to Jack. He's her husband. And now, he's died. She has to keep living and raising their children. It's powerful when she refuses to believe it and runs into the room. It's powerful when she tells Miguel that he needs to keep it together so she can tell the children. It's powerful when she's telling Kevin that Jack reunited the two of them this year. It's great acting on Moore's part. She's the savior of this hour because she builds that personal connection for the audience to understand and sympathize with. It's moving because the show hasn't overdone her story just yet. Kevin, Kate and Randall are the leads of this show. Meanwhile, Rebecca has often split her focus with Jack in their stories. And so, it's strong when she has to step up and be the focus with the audience knowing exactly what has happened and just how devastating it is for everyone involved. And now, she's appearing in the present day with more frequency. It's important for her to build that relationship with Kevin once more. Here, they are doing so through their shared connection with Jack. They are processing their feelings about his death together. It's simple but very effective. That's the mode this show is always most effective in but rarely does because it has its mind on the bigger picture.

And yet, the show can't resist a big twist happening in its big episode. That comes from the Randall corner of the story. Of the siblings, he has the healthiest life that's largely moving forward instead of lingering on the past. Sure, he's still not processing his emotions in a healthy way when it comes to the Super Bowl. He's making a big display about this game when no one else cares about it in the slightest. Beth finds herself constantly apologizing for his behavior. It's all a little ridiculously over-the-top. But it still manages to find a way back to emotional poignancy through his conversation with Tess. This season has seen Tess become more of a sullen teenager acting out against her parents. It's only been this very minor thing. But it's enough for her to roll her eyes at her father and think that her parents no longer love her the way they always have. It produces yet another strong monologue for Sterling K. Brown as Randall talks about how easy it is to love his children and be a good father to them. But the power of that monologue gets lost somewhat by the show flashing forward to show that this picture Randall paints of the future relationship with his daughter actually comes true. It's a little unnecessary and shows that the series has been manipulating the audience for a little while now. When Deja went back home with her mom, the show teased this boy who would one day find a home with Randall and Beth. But now, it's made clear that the case worker looking after him is actually an adult Tess. It's a shock because it's a new time period for the show to play around with. But what actual value does it add to the story? It could perhaps tease a new mystery that can rival Jack's death. But it doesn't do that here. It's just sweet and charming to see the love on display. Again, that's still effective. But it still feels manipulative and not nearly as effective as it could have been.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Super Bowl Sunday" was written by Dan Fogelman and directed by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra.
  • Kate's story is actually pretty bad. She complains to Toby about only wanting this one day of the year to be full of self-loathing about her past. And yet, her entire story in every single time period is about her self-loathing. It's just such a laughable plot point in a story that should be quite moving because Kate had the strongest connection to her father. Instead, it mostly feels like she and Toby are off on their own island detached from the rest of the episode.
  • Seriously, Kate's story is about a VHS tape being destroyed. It's the tape of Jack recording Kate performing her original song. It's a story that potentially teases her return to songwriting in the future. It's definitely curious that Toby doesn't know that aspect of her talents at all. But again, the story holds no significant value. It's just Kate continuing to wallow in her grief while foolishly believing that Toby is a romantic hero just like her father.
  • The show wants the audience to believe that Jordan, the young boy in foster care, is about to show up at Randall and Beth's house. But instead, it's actually Deja at the door while the scenes with Jordan are about a future Tess and Randall. The Deja twist is more interesting because it will have immediate consequences of value. Right now, it's unclear if the show wants to remain depicting the future.
  • Kevin's story this year has had some pretty significant and troubling lows to it. And yet, the way he is trying to build himself up again following that disastrous family therapy session has actually been quite good. It's fascinating to see him rebuild this relationship with Rebecca. But it's also quite moving watching him finally apologize to Jack and realize that he still needs to grow so much - even though he's falsely comparing himself to a guy he believes to be perfect which can't be healthy.
  • Kevin and Rebecca are learning how to be honest with each other. However, they don't need to constantly be asking "if they can be completely honest." That line just kept being repeated. Plus, it was a lot of fun hearing them be honest about cooking Jack's favorite lasagna and watching the Super Bowl as well as not knowing if Kevin was taking to Jack at the right tree.