It’s easy to overlook the ingeniousness of Dan Fogelman’s THIS IS US, the season’s only broadcast network smash hit. On its face, the show is a familiar, even old-fashioned family soap, in which the various members of a clan are constantly beset by romantic, professional or medical problems–The Fosters with older siblings. But Fogelman’s inspiration was to synthesize that genre with one much newer, the form we’ve come to call the “mystery box” story typified by shows like Lost, Mr. Robot and Westworld. These series are all about structural trickery and surprises, and they delight in pulling the rug out from under the audience’s feet. This Is Us has been on that path since its pilot, in which the closing minutes revealed that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), far from being contemporaries of Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), were actually their parents, and their story was taking place decades before those about their children. Since then, Fogelman and the other writers have regulated the information they give us about past and present to provide reveals and puzzles about Randall’s biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), the fate of Jack and Rebecca’s marriage, and how present-day Rebecca ended up re-married to Jack’s best friend Miguel (Jon Huertas), among other things.
Tonight’s season finale, written by Fogelman and the team of Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (who will be co-showrunners with Fogelman next season), both broke and reinforced the This Is Us template. Aside from a few glimpses of the present in the closing minutes, the two timeframes of the hour were both in the past, and both incorporated narrative fake-outs. The show had been hinting for weeks that it was going to explain Jack’s death, which we know occurred when the kids were teenagers, and the previous episode had ended in that era with him driving drunk, and Kate, seemingly the last person to speak to him, feeling guilty about his death decades later. But–surprise!–Jack survived the episode and seemed to be on the road back to sobriety by its end, so that mystery remains unsolved. The other timeline was a more familiar rom-com tease, as both young Rebecca and young Jack were set up on blind dates, but it turned out that neither was supposed to meet the other, except that of course thanks to some kismet they did.
The hour wasn’t This Is Us at its best, since aside from some rushed present-day Big Decisions (Randall wants to adopt; Kate wants to sing; Kevin was going off to meet with Ron Howard), there was little plot movement. But it was marked by a virtuoso turn by Ventimiglia and Moore, an almost act-long argument scene in which Jack and Rebecca tore into each other with fifteen years’ worth of accumulated resentments. Shot by director Ken Olin largely in one uninterrupted take, it was a bracing rebuke to those who had failed to take those two actors seriously in their youthful roles.
This Is Us can be trite and shamelessly sentimental, but Ventimiglia, Moore and Brown (and Susan Kelechi Watson as Randall’s wife, even though she has yet to really be center-stage) are unfailingly superb, and so was Ron Cephus Jones, although given that William has passed on, he’ll likely be visible mostly in scattered flashbacks going forward. Hartley and Metz fare less well, largely because Kevin is little more than a lovable doofus and Kate is defined almost entirely by her weight.
More than the acting or the specific plotting, though, it’s Fogelman’s chocolate-meets-peanut-butter mix of adroit manipulation of time with comfort-food storytelling that gives This Is Us its strength. It makes the conventional seem new, and that’s the secret sauce every network wishes it had as the television audience continues to fragment. NBC has already rewarded the show with an unusual 2-season renewal, and as long as the series can keep its delicate balancing act in the air, its viewers should be content to stay in the family.