BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “Jack’s death . . . ”
Is there one phrase, abbreviation or shorthand in all of television more freighted with meaning — or questions — than this one? A major hit almost seems to hang upon it, or revolve around it. Fans obsess over it, as reflected in their various social media fixations. Everyone wants an answer to the How . . . why.....what . . . WHEN?
They already know the answer to the “who.” Poor Jack Pearson — Milo Ventimiglia’s late, lamented character on “This Is Us.” He might even appreciate all the attention if he were actually alive. Which he is not.
Naturally, this obsession preoccupied most of the “This Is Us” panel session here at the NBC portion of the Television Critics Association tour Thursday — even after showrunner and creator Dan Fogelman revealed that Sylvester Stallone will make an extended cameo on the show next season (playing a father figure to Justin Hartley’s Kevin Pearson, on the Ron Howard movie he will star in.)
In the universe of “This Is Us,” Jack died long before the events in present time unfold — not evident until the closing seconds of the first season’s pilot. Because the show shifts time, Ventimiglia’s character exists only in extended past sequences, which has led fans on a wild-goose chase wondering how his character met his end. Jack’s not only a fan favorite, but a core cast member — key not only to “This Is Us’” appeal but to its good-hearted philosophy about the nature of love, fate and fatherhood. Ventimiglia also earned a surprise best actor Emmy nod this year.
He’s not going anywhere but fans do want answers. So far, all they’ve been given are teases.
Well? “It’s a hard question because if we say everything there’s nothing left to watch,” says Fogelman. “But in the course of the second season [viewers] will get all the answers about that and more. The first episode has a giant piece of that puzzle that will give some momentum towards that storyline.” (The second season begins Sept. 26).
Given the obsession, and given the fact that “This Is Us” is a series that could — and likely will — continue for years, Fogelman was asked if he regretted the story element.
Short answer to that: No.
“You can’t appreciate the family until you appreciate what happened to the family,” he explains. “Jack’s death was always going to be a big part of this show. The attention caught us a little off-guard, and the internet changes the conversation so quickly. But I try not to read too much. We have a plan and we have not strayed from the plan. The way Jack’s death will play out will play out as planned from episode one. But you also have to become cognizant that it doesn’t become a soap opera or that [this] one story takes over. It’s a balancing act.”