Mandy Moore was quoted recently saying that the THIS IS US finale was going to “destroy America.” First of all, Mandy must have been living under a rock for the last four months, and secondly, the only thing This Is Us finale destroyed were my intentions of watching season two. Perhaps, grossly misinterpreted by the media, Mandy was making the point that people have been making since the dawn of the television industry: nothing will destroy American homes like mediocre art. She was clearly inspired by Newton Minow’s famous speech calling television a “vast wasteland.” Mandy was finally taking a stance on This Is Us, and shows like them, that go for the emotional gut punch over substance. She was saying that Americans deserve better than this, but just really gave into hyperbole. Oh, Mandy, if only that were the case.
The mistakes made by “Moonshadow” are apparently early one. Mainly, that this episode is 97% about Jack and Rebecca. Screw those pesky kids that have been taking up so much screentime, it’s time for a fighting couple to get these 45 minutes of screentime. Well, that’s unfair. Only half of the screentime is devoted to Jack and Rebecca getting in a catastrophic argument (supposedly the one that destroys America) while the other half is a flashback to the two of them finally meeting. Barely. It’s more a flashback to the odd circumstances in which they met. In a classic This Is Us movie, there’s a lot more for Jack to do than Rebecca, who spends the whole flashback deciding if she wants to date or just focus on singing, playing into the beyond exhausted “can women have it all?” trope. Jack on the other hand, is about to delve into literal crime, which is insane. The show is clearly trying to show how both of them were struggling and lost before they met, but the inequality is staggering. Trying to get a singing career off the ground and getting beaten up in an alley and then turning to robbery is not exactly an equivalence, believe it or not. Of course, that odd portion of the episode finally ends with the two of them meeting, in an eyes locked across the room kind of way. And the rest, as they say, is 18 hours of a pretty okay television show. The built up to the meet-cute could have easily been replaced with whatever Randall’s doing, but alas, it was what we (and Jack, in an incredibly boring poker scene) were dealt.
The real kick of the episode of course, is the huge fight between Jack and Rebecca that the series has been slowly and painfully building towards in the last few episodes. Rebecca wanted more than just to be a mom and go off and sing on tour, but Jack was not to crazy about her singing with her ex-boyfriend. Also he’s been drinking again. These details were all established over the last couple weeks and now, in the season finale, it’s time to deal with them. And it is underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, married couples fighting can make for some of the most interesting and nuanced television. One can look no further than Parenthood or more recently, Big Little Lies, to get the scope of how marital disputes can make for exceptional television. Sadly, this was not the case on This Is Us.
The problem with the climactic fight, and with the show in general, is that the overarching goal is to make the audience feel. The question asked is not, “why would Jack say this line for his character?” but rather, “what line would Jack say here to make the audience cry?” It makes the fight at the end harder to watch because, though both Moore and Ventimiglia do their best, it’s just so apparent that writers want to make the audience upset, as opposed to the characters that are feeling these feelings. When Rebecca screams at her husband, “tell me why you love me,” it’s a hard thing to hear, but is immediately softened by the knowledge that, as he always does, Jack is going to come back and answer that question in a tear-jerky way.
Sure enough, the episode, and the whole first season end on Jack, with essentially no context, and no apology even, giving a speech that was built to go over a montage. He talks about how their kids are gonna be fine, as we get a brief glimpse into what the kids are doing. Randall wants to adopt a baby! He gets 15 seconds to say that! That could have been the whole episode, but no we are immediately back to Jack telling Rebecca she’s a great mom and he loves and all the reasons he loves her. It immediately takes back the gravity of the fight. For a show that is supposed to be so grounded, the inspirational “it’s all gonna be okay” speeches at the end are so cheesy they should be called fondue. There is a disappointing lack of realism and content in this episode, and a lot of this season (except Randall + co, who can do no wrong), of what could have been an interesting and nuanced portrait of a family. Instead, what we get is a milquetoast ending to a milquetoast season, and potentially, if Ms. Moore is to be believed, the destruction of America.
Season 1, Episode 18 (S01E18)
This Is Us airs Tuesday at 10PM on NBC
Raina spends most of her time watching television and trying to find the perfect bagel and lox, because she likes being emotionally distraught.
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Raina Deerwater | Contributor