It’s tempting to point to the events of Tuesday night to explain exactly how This Is Us has become a national phenomenon. A little over an hour before NBC’s time-jumping freshman hit aired its sad but sweet season finale, cable news host Rachel Maddow tweeted, out of nowhere, that she was in possession of potentially earth-shattering documents: “Trump tax returns.” Airing in the same time slot as This Is Us, her program was quickly amped up on MSNBC with a literal countdown clock and on social media with conspiratorial hysteria. The whole reveal was, as you may have heard, a complete dud—an exhausting 90-minute ordeal that merely faded into the ether of numbing cable news chatter. But then a few channels down was This Is Us, the most reliable, apolitically patriotic escapist fare around. Would you rather watch corporate media yet again fail to rise to the occasion or Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia find their way to the American Dream?
This Is Us was certainly the more uplifting option. The finale attempted to find the man behind the myth of Jack Pearson (Ventimiglia), the show’s patriarch whose untimely death—teased early in the season and gradually expanded upon—has haunted the rest of the characters in the present-day timeline. Jack, we learn, was a classically tragic hero, a working-class kid born to an abusive father, a family man whose trauma and past hardships always seemed to get in the way of his good intentions. His love story with Rebecca (Moore) was an irresistibly American one—determined by fate, ignited by passion, ultimately marred by events outside of their control. The season finale was This Is Us at its hokiest, its most shamelessly endearing. It progressed in dramatic contrast to the undelivered plot twist—the mundane disappointment—of real life.
But perhaps that’s giving This Is Us too much credit. This was never quite a great show, after all; no character fully clicked into place, and creator Dan Fogelman could seem ambivalent about the distinction between emotional persuasion and mere manipulation. His show was fueled by innovatively constructed episodes, collages of pivotal family moments stitched together from different time periods, often punctuated by diabolically effective twists. These plot turns rarely felt cheap or tacked-on; they were integral to the discovery process, to getting to know Jack and Rebecca and, in a later timeline, their three damaged children in a sweeping, almost mythological context. Yet particularly in the season’s final third, he couldn’t keep up the pace. Culminating in a grimly straightforward finale, This Is Us ran out of gas.
Tuesday night’s episode, titled “Moonshadow,” centered exclusively on Jack and Rebecca. The relatively tight focus was a form-bending choice that radiated confidence, with three of the five main characters not even appearing, save for cameos at the very end. The primary story of how the couple met and fell in love was juxtaposed with a major fight occurring a decade into their marriage, presumably the blowout that split them up. It played like an origin story, with the intent of bringing Jack out of the shadows. His role in the season was, largely, to inform the more robust narrative arcs of his three children; his ghost was a far more compelling presence than he himself was. “Moonshadow” sought to change that—to deconstruct the idealized patriarch.
This Is Us isn’t big on nuanced character development, however. Its characters may have flaws, but they stem from obvious roots. And they don’t mitigate the fact that we’re meant to see them as decent individuals deserving of more, not less. Fogelman couldn’t really get beyond Jack’s symbolic significance, only adding superfluous detail to what we already knew. Nearly an entire act of the episode featured a young Jack vying to start his own business and ditch his father for good, playing a poker game with some “bad guys.” (It didn’t end well.) Another, in the later timeline, generously indulged in his ugly drinking habit. It was all very morose, without the added depth of character to make it worthwhile. The episode’s high point—that vicious argument between Jack and Rebecca—was acted ferociously and filmed beautifully in a long take, with neither character holding any punches. Yet This Is Us, ever the heartrending uplifter, couldn’t leave us there. It needed to redeem, to give Jack a chance to profess his undying love for Rebecca one last time before he walked out the door.
Even at its best, This Is Us never deviated from formula, following moments of conflict with tender, feel-good reunions. But absent the narrative momentum of the season’s first half, the template proved hollow and unconvincing. The gloss of unpredictability had been scraped off, leaving the show in its barest form: heavy on tears, thin on substance. Tellingly, two of the show’s principal characters—twins Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), children to Rebecca and Jack—didn’t even appear in three of the final seven episodes (again, save for seconds-long cameos in the finale). Their stories seemingly stopped moving forward, only confirming that neither was particularly interesting in the first place. Kate’s weight struggles and Kevin’s desire to become a “serious” actor never dug below the surface. As This Is Us ran out of twists to spice their journeys up, the show all but threw up its hands, handing the two characters brief moments of triumph and pain here and there before hitting the reset button for Season 2.
This Is Us crafted its strongest episode, “Memphis,” by zeroing in on its natural strengths, focusing on Sterling K. Brown’s performance in a stand-alone story about his character’s complicated place in the Pearson family. And it tried to replicate that success for the finale. But it was ultimately at the expense of what distinguished This Is Us from the rest of the broadcast pack. Initially, the show managed to spin underwhelming characters and plots into resonant pieces of a familiar puzzle. Its twisty originality helped to bolster its popularity. But despite toying with meatier, sharper material, the finale revealed that, absent that element of surprise, this was still a show beholden to the guidelines of network TV, a family drama without the specificity to creatively thrive. Most importantly, though, it was still a pop culture hit that had attracted tens of millions of viewers, thanks to a simple but powerful gimmick. Without it, This Is Us was just another mediocre melodrama.