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.
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.