The Super Bowl 'This Is Us' killed Jack with love

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson in This Is Us. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

After the wild celebration of the Super Bowl win (what, you aren’t an Eagles fan?) and the razzle-dazzle of Justin Timberlake’s half-time show, the new episode of This Is Us that followed the game was a different kind of celebration: One that honored the life and death of Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and how his life continues to be honored by the characters into the present day. Spoilers follow for This Is Us, in case you fell asleep after the Super Bowl.

The show had been teasing the notion that all our questions about how Jack died would be answered, and they were. We knew that a fire destroyed the Pearsons’ house and naturally thought that Jack had died in the conflagration. After all, isn’t that why grown-up Kate (Chrissy Metz) didn’t want to get a dog — because her dad had perhaps foundered rescuing her childhood pet? Well, This Is Us gave that a twist: Jack saved the family and the dog but died in the hospital soon afterward. The heavy smoke inhalation put a strain on his lungs and heart, and he suffered what they call a widow-maker. And you can bet the widow Rebecca (Mandy Moore) took it hard.

Cut to, inevitably, the present, and it’s Super Bowl Sunday in Pearson-ville and the 20th anniversary of Jack’s death. Each of the kids honors Jack differently. Kate sits in front of the TV and watches the VHS tape her Dad made of her singing, while sobbing and making Toby feel helpless. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) goes in the opposite direction, psyching himself up into manic cheerfulness, organizing an elaborate Super Bowl party no one in the family is interested in except him. And Justin Hartley’s Kevin — well, Kevin goes to talk to a tree, which is where he apparently thinks his father’s spirit resides, even if he’s sometimes not quite sure he has the right tree.

Was all this sad? Yes. Was all this moving? Occasionally. To criticize This Is Us for jerking our tears is like criticizing The Flash for running fast — it comes with the premise. There was an awful lot of crying in this one, that’s for sure. It’s not the sobbing that can sometimes be irritating in this show — This Is Us knows how to do sorrow effectively. No, it’s more the trite therapy-speak that sometimes mars the dialogue, particularly with Kate. This was true here, as she told Toby she wanted to sit in her grief and “once a year I want to beat myself up for it,” as well as making sure Toby knows that she has transferred the feelings of safety she found in her father to him. I get that Kate’s the one who’s probably been in therapy the longest, but sometimes the wooden words get in the way of Metz’s effective performance.

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The episode was a good showcase for Moore, who conveyed the various gradations of shock and sadness. And the hour was also a showcase for what is perhaps a new timeline in the series. We saw that Randall’s eldest daughter, Tess, will have a job as a foster worker, placing children in new homes. (The older-man makeup for Brown as an aging Randall seemed fairly subtle.) The final moments also suggested that Deja may be returning to move in with Randall and his family in the present day. On Sunday night, I’m not sure if any This Is Us newbie, burping from too many chips and beer, would have been able to follow what was going on, but the Super Bowl-themed episode was a nice way to mellow out after an exciting game.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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