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TV: Jack on ‘This Is Us’

This is a post about the first episode of Dan Fogelman’s drama This Is Us, the season opener, which aired this week on NBC. I bought the show’s second season on iTunes, as I did the first season (and I’m glad I did; it’s the best new show on television as far as I’m concerned, as I explained in my review). I did what I usually do with visual media. Avoiding detailed analyses and commentary, which is nearly impossible, I first watched the episode.

Buy the First Season

Then and only then did I read some of the feedback and reviews (I typically don’t read or listen to reviews in advance of writing my own because I want to remain objective, but I made an exception in this case and this isn’t a straight episode review). The New York Times published a commentary, which is not a review, totally focused on one aspect of the episode: a plot conflict resolution or mystery solved involving the show’s guiding force: the family’s father character-in-flashback, Jack Pearson (played by Milo Ventimiglia). The Hollywood Reporter did, too, though it was rambling, unfocused and barely readable. Both writers complained about the show’s first episode for the same reason: they asserted that it needlessly or gratuitously prolongs the puzzle of Jack Pearson’s death, a plot point revealed in the first season which remains unresolved.

Fans, too, in certain instances, focus on this aspect of the show. It’s easy to see why. Jack is an integral part of the show. He’s the head of the family. He’s the moral center, driving the This Is Us theme that the good is possible to achieve here on earth. Jack, a Pittsburgh husband and father who drinks too much and almost committed armed robbery before being diverted by love at first sight of his future wife (Mandy Moore), is an optimist. Having been the son of an abusive alcoholic, he seeks in layered, selective flashback to sort through the mess of life to forge a family with love, excellence and joy. He leads by example, admits mistakes and fathers with warmth, intelligence and love. He knows that life is like a banquet. He goes for the best for his wife and three kids — if not for himself.

This is what moves the opening episode of the second season. The ways that altruism — the moral code that living for the sake of others at the expense of your self-interest is highest — sinks into man’s soul, festers and becomes like an infectious disease. How insidious is this rotten moral ideal, altruism; how it contaminates the best within us — the part that dreams of being one’s best and showcasing it for the wonderful world. Each of Jack’s children, and certainly his wife, strives to be the best. Does Jack, the hero?

This is what the new episode of This Is Us implicitly asks and consequently dramatizes.

Though the first episode of the second season of this exceptional TV drama about ordinary people in pursuit of extraordinary goals, perfection and happiness arced through the triplets’ 37th birthday milestones of progress in love, career and family, the somber theme emerges when the wife comes to her estranged husband at a doorstep.

This is the part that took my breath away. This is the show’s dramatic pivot point; the hinge that creator Dan Fogelman, who recently spoke about the violent, sudden death of his parent in an interview with a trade publication, named when discussing how the reveal of Jack’s death is a gateway to a season of discovery, alignment and joy. This is what the episode’s critics, pseudo-fans and naysayers evade or ignore — that Jack’s admission of alcoholism is part of reality, too. That the final frame’s portrait of the wreckage of their home is not intended as an ongoing tease to melodrama but as a snapshot of the harsh, horrible facts of life which sometimes rudely intrude. That it’s whether and how you respond that shapes your character and life.

Jack is not defined by how he died. Suffering is not the point of life. Healing, fixing and remedial action — so you can be happy — is.

This is what This Is Us dramatized this week: life is finite and each life is a work in progress. That life is everything. That living means being rational, which starts with going by facts, not feelings, especially when facts are harsh. Life can be rich, rewarding and exalted — if you can earn and keep it. This is what This Is Us is about. So far, as the bright spot of a darker new season, This Is Us is showing the way.

 

TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, TV’s highest-rated dramatic series since Fox’s Empire, is also TV’s best new show in years. This ingenious yet simple series combines classic television storytelling with a current Hollywood trend—the time or flashback gimmick that’s so ubiquitous it’s annoying—to create a powerful vehicle for dramatizing today’s individual in the family, often at his best. This Is Us is emotionally balanced and satisfying. It’s the best show I’ve seen in decades.

Its distinguishing quality is clarity in portraying modern life as it is and ought to be, fed by an utter lack of cynicism. It’s not about supernatural, artificial or comic book characters. There are no thrones, crowns or cartoons and there’s none of the vulgar, trashy made-you-look appeal of HBO and so-called reality TV programming. This is pure, middle class adult American fiction, so if you don’t think people can be kind, decent and complicated—while being exceptional, amazing and fallible—and live in harmony, This Is Us is not for you. For the rest of us, this show is heir to TV’s most earnest and universal family-themed series including Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Parenthood and Frasier. It is that simple, serious and good.

Buy the first season

Every one of its 18 episodes peels another layer in the family created by Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who make their own lives and family. The first and final episodes begin and end with these two characters, played with conviction by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, with thoughtful surprises in every episode in between. This Is Us defies description because its inventive approach to storytelling is integrative, so each plot development folds into the rest of the characters’ arcs, though rarely in obvious, pat or predictable ways. This Is Us is created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Disney’s Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Last Vegas and The Guilt Trip. Fogelman also created ABC’s Galavant. Besides the parenting leads, the main characters are their three children, played as adults by Chrissy Metz as an insecure and obese twin, Justin Hartley as her handsome twin brother and Sterling K. Brown as their wealthy, adopted brother.

More thematically essential to the series, which is so carefully threaded that it’s more like an extended miniseries, subplots dovetail into deeper themes. A long-lost musician father (outstanding Ron Cephas Jones) with terminal cancer returns for an elegy on the meaning of life. A doctor, played by Gerald McRaney in one of the best supporting performances on dramatic television, imparts his hard-earned wisdom in saving, delivering and coping with the loss of life. My favorite supporting character, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the show’s best actors), is so witty, rational and soothing that, when she hurts, it sneaks up on everyone. This is the theme of This Is Us—that this is life in America, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Memphis, New York or LA; that this is it, here and now, and what matters is that which promotes life.

This is not one of those TV dramas that begs to be taken seriously for its own sake, however. The action, pathos and jaw-dropping drama, and the season is loaded with each, isn’t excessively somber, self-important or pretentious, like thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues or other heavy shows praised by critics that often put you to sleep. It isn’t downbeat like that. Besides light touches of humor, This Is Us is rooted in its premise that humanity is good, the universe is benevolent and problems can be solved.

Don’t take this to mean that This Is Us expresses pure romanticism (it doesn’t). Naturalism with romanticist strokes best captures its style. But, from the birth of a baby to the separation of a marriage, this program is unique in that the audience is cultivated to root for its characters to succeed, flourish and be happy. Happiness is its natural state. The characters’ conflicts, flaws and idiosyncrasies are mined for drama, not implanted for permanence. The strongest impressions are made by the exhibition of those values by which these characters seek to reach new, exciting and radical improvements, achievements and the highest goals.

For example, the panic attack that strikes a trader in weather derivatives strengthens a bond with his brother and triggers a soul-searching introspection. An actor quits at the top of his game and takes a lesser role to pursue his personal best. An artist strikes out on her own only to get pregnant and have her dreams derailed while a woman goes to what she calls “fat camp” to get thin and unlocks an emotional fury that leads to a crucial catharsis. And a husband and father delays gratification so he can be a better man, which, to him, means escaping the hell of his own family and becoming one of the good guys. That this happens with alcoholism, drug addiction, unwed motherhood, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, body shaming and more only deepens the meaning of this rich, textured show.

This Is Us is not without flaws. Period specificity, including costumes, songs, mannerisms and the way people talk lacks credibility as the show goes on, sometimes to distraction. But intelligent writing, wisdom and sincerity, which only occasionally slips into sentimentality, overcomes its problems. It is true that This Is Us touches the audience with heartbreaking scenes (don’t judge the show by its sappy Twitter feed, which disproportionately features fans measuring impact by tears). Yet it takes wrenching problems in daily life and dramatizes realistic, practical and often enlightening solutions. It renders this with serious writing, directing and acting, leaving the audience lighter, smarter and wiser and all in the halo of its main man, alpha male, father figure, Jack Pearson, whose vision of the ideal family undergirds the show.

This Is Us plays its plot points and character arcs with idealism, not cynicism, and its protagonists’ ethics are essentially egoistic. They aim to act in their self-interest and generally try to go by reason. The show’s tightly integrated plot, theme and cast of characters play as compelling. Some may prejudge and recoil from the show’s looks and arcs. Similarly, This Is Us will not satisfy feminists, multiculturalists and other egalitarians because it makes a fundamentally strong stance for being one’s best and individualism (even, in its own way, capitalism). This is why This Is Us stands out as the most serious drama on TV. It’s a show that’s aligned with reality as it is and, while not in the largest sense, ought to be. Watch for what it’s not—cynical and spewing against everything all the time—and take it for what it is. But watch (from the start), think and enjoy.

New Media and You

nightly_newsJournalism suffered a few blows this week and not for the reasons you might think.

First, NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams was suspended and had his pay slashed in half after he apologized for conflating a story in which his war correspondence was at issue. I’ve written that I’m giving Williams (if not NBC News) the benefit of the doubt, which he’s given me no prior reason not to grant, though I think it’s clear that he is an example of journalism driven by having fans, not gathering, having and reporting facts. Still, I think NBC News is more responsible for whatever wrong has been done, given what is currently known. That the nation’s top anchorman was caught conflating (there is no evidence of lying) the truth, which he acknowledged and for which he apologized, who was, in turn, vilified by the press and the public without a proper and thorough inquiry and then suspended without half his pay before either exoneration or proof of wrongdoing strikes me as a disincentive for others to step up when they make a mistake. That NBC News, which is totally infected with subjectivism, is not at all transparent about what is known by its investigators compounds the problem. No one should expect NBC, which is controlled by a crony cable utility, to be objective about Brian Williams, his replacement or the news. What happened to Williams is, as I wrote when the story broke, a black mark on today’s journalism and not only because of Brian Williams. The blame also lies with those who watch.

This was my point a few years ago when I wrote about comedian Jon Stewart, who announced this week that he’s quitting his Comedy Central program. It’s the audience that ultimately propels today’s media and the vicious cycle of mistaking satirical, cynical, absurdist humor mixed with facts for news is that it leads to more reasons to feel like sneering at the world and its corollary that the whole world deserves it. So what’s left is a landscape of shockmeisters such as Howard Stern, Greg Gutfeld, Bill Maher, and other crude, sniveling types where once the public tuned in newsmen such as Harry Reasoner, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace. In between, even hosts and publishers such as Johnny Carson, Hugh Hefner and Tom Snyder were serious and intellectual compared with today’s often vacuous and self-centered TV personalities such as Oprah, Barbara Walters and Bill O’Reilly.

American media has been in a steep decline for decades, since Woodward and Bernstein made headlines out of relatively trivial matters and, perhaps through no intention of theirs, became bigger than the stories they covered. This made personality-oriented print and broadcast journalism all but a necessity in the age of new journalism. The fabricating began in earnest and it never let up, from Janet Cooke at the Washington Post to Jayson Blair at the New York Times. But the padding and airheaded advancement of stories not based on facts and truth emanated from the highest levels and the most vaunted institutions, not working class blokes like yours truly and other less anointed bloggers, freelancers and scrappy, self-made journalists. The list of those caught lying or concealing is not only long; it includes today’s biggest names: Mike Barnicle, Fareed Zakaria, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Joe Klein, to say nothing of the newspaper scandals in auditing circulation and the Los Angeles Times‘ Staples Center fiasco.

If you’re reading fake news, why not watch fake news that admits it’s fake?

jon-stewart

Enter Jon Stewart and his cohort the ascendant Stephen Colbert, owing to the godfather of fake news, the Weekend Update segment on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Could Borat, stunts by Breitbart and Michael Moore’s Sicko among other fabricated stories be far behind? Now, Stewart, coddled by and nuzzling up to his intellectual cousin O’Reilly, formerly of the torrid A Current Affair, moves up into a presumably higher status. The circus goes on while the public knows less and seeks only to laugh through the sneer. So, the cycle continues: subjectivism spreads. Laughing with, or even at, the irrational as an evasion of being rational becomes a heavy burden that gets heavier with each major development. The Simpsons, once a segment on a Fox variety show, has been on the air for decades. Stewart has been on The Daily Show (note its antithesis to the nightly news) for 15 years. Deterioration of cultural discourse parallels the rise of the absurd and the asinine.

Last night, news came that punctuates the point. CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who traveled the world, took risks and was captured by an Arab dictatorship and held for 40 days, died in a car accident at the age of 73. Police said Simon was not wearing a seat belt and there may be more to the story.

But the fawning, personality-driven, subjectivist media wanted very little or nothing to do with facts. Fox News hostess Megyn Kelly mentioned Simon’s death briefly and then moved on. The Los Angeles Times did not find it necessary to bother addressing, let alone reporting, the circumstances of the car accident. CNN invited its leading newsman Anderson Cooper, who had his own syndicated daily talk show, as a guest to talk about working with Bob Simon. But, rather than discuss the facts of Simon’s death, Cooper kept saying that Simon’s death is “incomprehensible”. The fact is that dying in a car accident is not incomprehensible, especially if one is not wearing a seat belt.

The media’s herd mentality on Bob Simon’s death is that it is ironic because Simon lived in such a risk-oriented manner but died in a presumably random car accident. As the LA Times reported: “60 Minutes boss, executive producer Jeff Fager, noted the irony: Simon “had escaped more difficult situations than almost any journalist in modern times” but lost his life as a passenger in a hired car that smashed into a Mercedes Benz at a stoplight.” As usual, the Times reported only partial truth and they reported it as the definitive and final account. Strictly speaking, the Times report is false. Simon’s life was not lost in the manner the newspaper describes; Newsday reported that Bob Simon wasn’t wearing his seat belt and “died from blunt force head trauma as well as other injuries in a Manhattan car wreck” and that “a law enforcement source said his driver had nine past license suspensions and two outstanding traffic summonses.” Simon’s death is not ironic. On the contrary, if Newsday‘s report is true, Simon died as he’d lived: knowingly risking his life.

This aversion to reporting facts in favor of framing the story, in this case the Times‘ compulsion to impose an irony theme on the story regardless or in absence of the facts, is subjectivism. It starts with the public accepting, following and buying fake news and demanding more of it to consume and laugh at, lulling them into the plausible denial that the world is collapsing. Subjectivism ends, and objectivism in news begins, with thinking for oneself and demanding facts even if it means making an effort to gather, grasp and analyze facts. This means tuning out fake news and tuning in (or learning how to look for) real news. To use a noble phrase which is more likely to be satirized, being objective means seeking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about reality.

Brian Williams and NBC News

nightly_newsNBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams apologized for falsely recalling events during an incident in 2003 during the Iraq war in which he had asserted that a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter he was traveling on was under fire and shot down by the enemy until rescued by an Army unit. It turns out that the aerial vehicle may have been under fire (though this, too, is in dispute) and that was about it; the helicopter was not shot down as he had claimed and he was not rescued as he had described (read the Stars and Stripes report here). His false assertions have reportedly been made for years, as recently as last week, and appear, in light of the fact that another U.S. helicopter in proximity was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, to have been conflated and/or embellished.

The Brian Williams apology is another setback for the damaged NBC News brand, which has sustained many major mistakes and subsequent apologies from NBC and MSNBC personalities in recent years.

I do not watch Brian Williams or NBC Nightly News enough to judge or gauge his reputation. However, as a journalist, I am inclined to grant Williams the benefit of the doubt; it is conceivable that being on a vehicle under siege in combat 12 years ago became conflated in his mind with another vehicle which was shot down, especially given his admitted enthusiasm for acknowledging a heroic U.S. Army, which is garnering new appreciation in the wake of the commercial and critical success of American Sniper. I know that Brian Williams, who recently interviewed Edward Snowden, appears regularly on the NBC News joint operation MSNBC and whose daughter recently appeared in NBC’s recent live musical version of Peter Pan, is a former fireman. His claim to be motivated by a desire to recognize heroic action seems sincere.

The real problem with today’s broadcast journalism is the rampant subjectivism, which the Comcast-owned NBC News practices with abandon. Generally, Fox News trivializes, sensationalizes and minimizes the news, while CNN avoids controversy at the expense of reporting facts and lets left-wing bias into its programming, and MSNBC, led by NBC News, is practically an organ of the New Left presidency. While a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center found MSNBC (which has still not corrected its mistake about Ayn Rand) to be the most opinionated, least news-oriented cable news channel, and another study found it wildly biased for Obama, the channel also fired leftist TV talk show host Phil Donahue, whom I interviewed last year, for fear that his principled opposition to the Iraq war would harm its political influence, despite Donahue’s top ratings. Both NBC News and MSNBC employ numerous former and current government workers, political pundits and influence peddlers and their relatives, often without disclosure, such as Alan Greenspan’s wife, Andrea Mitchell, though broadcast news is similarly guilty as an industry.

With news driven by who, not what, there is to know, someone in a prominent position such as Brian Williams was bound to slip and come undone. The anchorman came of age following the highly touted Tom Brokaw, author of the dubiously titled Greatest Generation and embodiment of an influence peddler who made a career of cozying up to those in government power, and Williams has followed in that same path of personality-driven news, which is to say pseudo-journalism. He is not known for breaking news. He is not known for original, cohesive reports or groundbreaking investigations. He gained an exclusive interview with whistleblower Snowden last year and did a decent but not exceptional job. He Tweets, jokes, cajoles, goes all over TV, especially NBC TV comedies and MSNBC, promoting himself and his bland, short, mediocre Nightly News and he became visibly associated with his daughter’s high-profile appearance as NBC’s Peter Pan. None of this evokes Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace or Walter Cronkite or great broadcast journalists.

It’s not entirely his fault. The line between TV personality and TV journalist is blurred if not eviscerated as journalism has become subjective, not objective, and he is probably encouraged to push himself rather than his ability by the government-favored cable utility that employs him. In a vapid, cynical culture in which a public that favors sneering over reporting does not differentiate between facts and fiction, it should surprise no one that the nation’s top TV news personality doesn’t, either.