“This Is Us” wrapped a first season Tuesday with more back story, more tears, more Jack, more Rebecca, and one especially memorable line, from the latter to the former: “You’re not just my big love story, you’re my big break.”
Beyond that, “This Is Us” left you/us with nothing particularly momentous, keeping intact a rhythm, tone and philosophy that worked so well over the past 17 episodes. That can be stated essentially this way: Your past informs your future, your actions lead to other actions, the little moments expand exponentially over time to become massive moments.
Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) turning his head to catch sight of the singer (Mandy Moore) singing a cover of “Moonshadow” just before he robbed the cash register in the bar? That would be classified certainly as one of those small moments, also small miracles. Either action would have had repercussions. It was his good luck that the action he chose would ultimately form the basis of network TV’s breakout hit of the 2016-17 season.
In a series of flashbacks/flash forward -- all ending with one present day glimpse at the lives of the kids, Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) -- “This Is Us” filled out the story of Jack/Rebecca without completing their story. He went to Cleveland to hear her set, got drunk, punched out Ben (Sam Trammell), got home, got kicked out by Rebecca.
You didn’t REALLY expect you’d learn how Jack died, did you? Fans of course have known since the early episodes that Jack had died over the intervening years, now they also know they’ll have to wait over the intervening seasons to come to find out how. “This Is Us” started with Jack/Rebecca and ended the first season with Jack/Rebecca. “This Is Us” to a very large extent is their story, for however long this series should run.
Certainly the great creative challenge for the showrunners remains figuring out how to stretch out Jack’s life -- and fate -- without turning entire seasons into a series of bait and switches. Viewers are going to have to find out at some point, and some no doubt fell for the ruse that he’d die in a car accident on the way to Rebecca’s gig (last week). But “This Is Us” can play that particular card only so many times. Viewers are now officially wise to that game.
The finale “Moonshadow” was good. It wasn’t the best episode of the season, but it was a valuable one because Jack, as both character and human being, fell into place. Speaking of his father, he said “dad had a choice between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing, and he always broke the wrong way. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Every single time. I tried to go the other way and look where it’s gotten me?”
Breaking bad was apparently Jack’s fate, too, because -- in his callow youth -- he clearly didn’t have a well developed enough sense of either irony or common sense to know that you never join a poker game, then leave after one hand with the entire pot. Maybe he just hadn’t seen enough movies, or maybe “Rounders” or “The Cincinnati Kid” weren’t even out yet. But that kind of move never ends well.
And didn’t. To paraphrase Jack’s own words, the bad guys may never see the good guys coming, but they sure see them going.
Jack -- in short -- wasn’t just impulsive in his youth, but not particularly bright either. Nevertheless, when the big moment came -- steal the money, or hit on the woman singing the song -- he made the right choice. His better angels won. His line to Rebecca at the episode’s end -- “You’re not just my big love story, you’re my big break” -- was endowed with beauty AND truth.
Where does “This Is Us” go from here? Wherever showrunners Ken Olin and creator Dan Fogelman would like it to go. There’s a vast spread of potential story here, both in the past, present and future. We got plenty of hints Tuesday night: Randall wants to adopt a baby. Kate wants to sing. Kevin really did get a call from Ron Howard -- no dream! -- to audition for his next movie. Meanwhile, Jack and Rebecca are really just beginning, at least in one timeline.
Past stories? There’s a lot of room to develop Kevin/Randall /Kate, too. How DID Randall meet Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), for example? Surely she was his “big break,” too. How did Kevin end up on “The Manny?” Kate now has a vital role in the “This Is Us” universe because as she confided last week, something she did led to her father’s death. Well?
NBC has ordered two more seasons which is its own sort of blessing for the showrunners because now they’ve got the luxury of time to figure out how all this should interlock. Lots of story can quickly lead to “too much story,” which can lead to drag and bloat, and an endless series of episode-ending tear-jerks that are designed to do nothing more than drag viewers from one week to the next.
That’d be a shame because the first season of “This Is Us” did establish that there’s more here than some mawkish twists and soap operatics. There’s a philosophy of sorts, an exploration of how lives are really lived, and how secular “miracles” really do happen in lives. The show even leaves the door ajar for the possibility of nonsecular miracles, too.
“Miracle” is a word that’s only rarely had a starring role in prime time. Networks are too skittish about that nonsecular aspect, while much of television has long been preoccupied with the anti-miracle, or what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong. Miraculously, “This Is Us” has built the biggest hit of the ‘16-‘17 season on the idea of miracles. Maybe viewers were ready to embrace the idea, too.