(SPOILER ALERT: This story contains crucial developments about Tuesday night’s premiere.)
Can “This Is Us” really play this game all season?
Yes it can, and yes -- apparently -- it will.
Tuesday’s setup was clever, by no means conclusive. Only one answer to one question -- a possible cause of death -- was provided, and nothing other than a series of clues (some possibly relevant, others possibly not) were provided. You’re then left to sort through the circumstantial evidence.
Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) appears to have died in a house fire. But how, why, when . . . what?
Finding a storyline with a hook and a tease that cuts through the clutter and background noise of all else that’s going on in prime time is now the goal of any series. (Is Jon Snow dead? Is he really dead? Will he go back to being dead?) And “This” has hit on the perfect one: The rise and fall of Jack.
Here, then, are the questions that piled up at the end of the sophomore season launch of “Us” Tuesday: Why did he die in the house fire, if that was, in fact, the cause of death? Was he too drunk to get up and out?
Or was that preamble before (Jack to Rebecca: “I’m drunk now and I’ve been for months . . .”) just a head fake to get you to think that?
Next, in the penultimate scene where young Randall (Niles Fitch) and young Kate (Hannah Zeile) were crying inconsolably, why did Kate have a dog?
Why did young Kevin (Logan Shroyer) have a cast on his leg? Why did Rebecca (Mandy Moore) have on a Steelers shirt?
How will each of these details-- and then, all of them together -- figure in the long, slow, deliberative plot progression that will consume the rest of this season?
Because this is something of a game, let’s do just that. (And some of this, my dear Watson, is elementary:)
First, the season. We assume it’s the beginning of fall, or late summer, with football just underway, hence the cast and Steelers shirt. If it’s late summer, we might even make the assumption that this is Aug. 31, the birthday for the three Pearson kids, and that at the time of their father’s death, they are 16. Recall that the twins were conceived on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 20, 1980, after the Steelers beat the Rams. Wearing that Steelers shirt might be another clue that this was a birthday. Another question: If this was indeed a birthday, why would Jack and the rest of the family have been separated? With the exception of Kevin, could they all have been there when the fire started? Or -- much, much more likely -- could they have been somewhere else beside the house when the fire started?
Even, perhaps, at Miguel’s (Jon Huertas) place? (He’s seen comforting the kids).
By the way, I like the idea of a birthday, because the series opened on the three Pearsons’ 36th birthday, while Tuesday’s episode marked their 37th.
Next, the house. You know it’s a good house, and a solid one. Jack basically built it, after all, when he got money from his old man back in 1980. So the ruined hulk you saw Tuesday was also about 16 years old. But why would a relatively new house burn so completely? Wouldn’t the fire department have been there a little earlier? Why didn’t Jack get out of the house if indeed he was there?
Or did he return to the house and finding it engulfed in flames, rushed in to save somebody -- like a cute little dog?
Maybe he did go back in the house to save the dog, or maybe he went back in to save something else, too. Recall that on the seat of Rebecca’s car was a plastic bag containing various personal items, including what appears to be a notebook. Did he perhaps go back to grab that? And if it was of such immense value, then why (why, why?!)
I won’t go any further here, but went through this exercise simply to establish how “Us” can (and perhaps will) string this out the rest of the season. The show has a working brain, so my assumption is that the answers -- whatever they turn out to be -- will be compelling.
But remember one fact as you watch this season going forward: Jack is a heroic character. He probably did not die in a drunk stupor, nor did he die in vain. On that fateful day, his example was set for his children for the rest of their lives -- to be more than they think they can be.
In any case, good second-season opener.