In This Is Us’s Super Bowl spectacular — literally called “Super Bowl Sunday” — viewers finally learned how the man died. Then as the episode reached its conclusion, the series added yet another new timeline to its collection, so that we might get to ponder how more people died.
So much of the smash hit series’ first season was taken up by questions about how Jack Pearson, the patriarch of the show’s central family, perished — right down to when it happened — that it was something of a relief when the show’s season two premiere offered what seemed like a fairly straightforward answer to the question: Jack died in a house fire.
Except ... not really. The deeper into season two the show got, the more it teased out the exact circumstances of Jack’s death, right down to an episode that prompted a response from Crock-Pot underlining the safety of the company’s signature product. (The fire that sort of kills Jack starts because of faulty wiring in a slow cooker.)
And the more the show teased, the less it could manage to be about anything but its central puzzle. The premise of This Is Us went from “A modern family deals with the struggles of contemporary life” to “At some point, a man dies.” It was maddening to watch the series elongate this storyline, which left the impression that once it had revealed the details of Jack’s death, there would be no show left.
I don’t know if that will turn out to be true. I hope it doesn’t, because there are a lot of individual elements I like about This Is Us. But “Super Bowl Sunday” did nothing to dissuade me from my fears.
Jack dies not in the fire, but shortly after it, from cardiac arrest due to smoke inhalation
The assumption held by many fans — that Jack died because he went back into his burning house to save his daughter Kate’s dog — turned out to be mostly true. (Kate revealed in the show’s first season that she blamed herself for her dad’s death, and the dog seemed to be the easiest path between points A and B.)
Jack went back into the house to retrieve the dog — and, as it turned out, a family photo album and some beloved jewelry. (He spent so long in there and picked up so many items that I half expected him to also stop to grab his old nemesis, the Crock-Pot.) But he made it out of the blaze alive, though he’d inhaled a bunch of smoke. After going to the hospital to have his burns bandaged and his lungs checked, Jack ended up suffering catastrophic cardiac arrest due to all of the smoke he had inhaled. His wife Rebecca, meanwhile, was purchasing a candy bar while her husband died.
There are some ways in which this particular story point works, especially because it gives Mandy Moore (who plays Rebecca and is who emerging as one of This Is Us’s strongest performers) plenty of big moments. Notice, for example, how Moore really works with the candy bar that slowly becomes the last thing she wants to think about as the doctor (the great Bill Irwin) breaks the news that her husband has died. The later scene where she tells Miguel (Jack’s former co-worker and Rebecca’s future second husband) what has happened to Jack is a great showcase for her too.
Plus, for as pointlessly convoluted as Jack’s death proved to be, I liked the way it allowed the episode to depict the slow-motion freight train crash that is grief overwhelming a family as the news spreads from person to person. All of this was more or less fine!
But here’s the thing: Jack’s death has come to occupy such a place of centrality in This Is Us’s mythology that I don’t really know where it can pivot to from here. Season two has been a decidedly mixed bag in terms of finding other storylines to hook into, with even Randall and Beth’s struggle to navigate the foster care system being a little all over the place. By stretching out Jack’s death to fill two episodes (and, really, three if you count this coming Tuesday’s funeral-centric hour), the show is not doing itself any favors.
“Super Bowl Sunday” was an incredibly strange episode to air after the Super Bowl
Early during the broadcast of the episode, someone asked me on Twitter why the Pearsons didn’t just have their family photos and other data backed up somewhere, so Jack didn’t risk his life to save the photo album. And while, sure, it would have been possible to do something like that in 1998 (the year Jack dies), it’s unlikely the Pearson family would have done something like that. And that’s when I realized that the person asking about backups, quite possibly watching the show for the very first time, likely hadn’t yet realized the Jack and Rebecca stuff was happening in the past.
This is the eternal peril of any post-Super Bowl episode of television. Do something that dives too deeply into the weeds regarding a show’s overarching storylines and you risk turning off casual or first-time viewers. Do something too disconnected from everything else and you risk griping from fans. This Is Us tried to split the difference, and it ended up hurting “Super Bowl Sunday” as a whole.
Take Beth reminding Randall early in the episode of all of their struggles with the foster care system. This is really not something she would be recapping for her husband — he would already know — but it’s probably acceptable as a way to get new viewers on board with the characters’ big storyline for the season. And if This Is Us had simply been about a very bad Super Bowl Sunday in its characters’ past, contrasted with their various (probably standalone) experiences on Super Bowl Sunday 2018, it probably would have worked.
You can see the bones of this structure throughout the hour. Present-day Randall has a lovely conversation with his daughter about how much she means to him, and present-day Kevin tries like hell not to drink. Present-day Rebecca watches the Eagles beat the Patriots by herself, until Kevin joins her. (And the show swapping in actual footage from the game that had just ended was a neat trick.)
But eventually, these stories are all consumed by the need to make everything that happens in the present about Jack’s death, which is now 20 years in the past. Yes, I buy that these people would still be sad about his death. And yes, I’m sure their sadness would manifest particularly acutely on Super Bowl Sunday (though, to be honest, the show’s timeline around Super Bowl Sunday 1998 is a little tough to parse). But as another famous TV drama once insisted, life goes on, right? This Is Us too often makes it seem as if the characters have been wandering around in a crater for the past two decades, like maybe the show is an accidental advertisement for the benefits of talk therapy.
This brings us to the episode’s big “twist,” which reveals that the social worker who’s been telling a young boy she’s found him a new foster family isn’t preparing him to meet Randall and Beth but is, indeed, Randall and Beth’s oldest daughter, Tess, all grown up and working for the foster care system in some capacity. The introduction of a new timeline — and new versions of characters we’re already interested in — could work for This Is Us, but I’m already worried that the next episode will open with old Randall telling adult Tess, “You know, when your grandmother Rebecca died under circumstances we’re still too emotionally fragile to talk about...”