I have been feeling separation anxiety for weeks, and it is only getting worse. Season 5 of NBC’s “This Is Us’ ends Tuesday. And the network has also officially announced that the greatest family drama in the history of network TV will conclude after Season 6 next year. That was expected, but it still intensifies the feeling of impending loss.
I love this series about the Pearson family: father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and their three children, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz). I love it as I have loved no other family drama in more than three decades of writing about television and media.
Because of that, I decided a few weeks ago to watch every episode again. Crazy, I know, especially with all the screening of new product that is part of the job. I thought I would tire after a dozen or so hours, but my feelings for the series only deepened. This is one of the very few TV dramas that is just as good or better on second viewing. I am only into the first six episodes of Season 2, but see more clearly what makes this such a distinctive and landmark television series.
It starts with subject matter. Network dramas have traditionally for the most part steered away from dark and controversial topics. Not “This Is Us.” It dives into them head and heart first. In the first two seasons alone the list includes: racism, alcoholism, physical and emotional child and spousal abuse, death of loved ones, a nervous breakdown, eating disorders, opioid addiction, body shaming, drunken driving, a stillborn child, an infant abandoned by his biological father and grown children estranged from their parents.
Creator Dan Fogelman’s proclivity for exploring the pain of tragedies that beset all families without writing happy endings to make viewers feel better is one of the primary reasons that the series feels so real and so regularly brings members of its audience to tears.
“Grief is the price we pay for love,” Queen Elizabeth II wrote in a message for a service of remembrance of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “This Is Us” is not afraid to explore the grief as deeply as the love of family relationships. Think back to Rebecca’s anguished cries alone in the family car in the wake of Jack’s death. In the past, that would have likely been too real for network TV. That sensibility of not upsetting the audience for prime-time entertainment with too much pain helped create the space for premium cable, and now streaming dramas willing to visit the deep and darker parts of the human heart. “This Is Us” is the one network drama that can stand toe to toe with anything on these platforms in that respect.
And then, there is the sophisticated, complex, yet totally accessible storytelling of the series. Again, this is landmark in terms of network TV trusting the audience’s ability to get beyond linear narratives and immerse in ever shifting time periods.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” No network TV series has embraced that truth to the extent of “This Is Us.” The abuse Jack suffered as a child at the hands of his alcoholic father suffuses almost every decision he makes as a father. The ugliness of Jack’s father lives in his memory, the demon he battles everyday, whether it is in a bar after work, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or parenting on a father-son camping trip with Randall and Kevin. Jack’s refusal to cut short that camping trip and visit his father, dying in a nursing home, represents a harsh truth about relationships in some families. “That man’s been dead to me for a long time,” Jack tells Rebecca in an episode in the second season.
Fogelman and his team also intertwine into the series the way families use stories and narratives to create their sense of history, identity and culture. In the first season, there is the holiday episode about a Thanksgiving Day trip to visit Rebecca’s mother and the horrible roadside inn the family spent the night after serious car trouble.
The strange man at the desk of the dodgy lodging identified himself as Pilgrim Rick and wore a pilgrim’s hat. After that, each year on Thanksgiving, one of the Pearsons would don a pilgrim’s hat and retell the tale of that disastrous trip. Many families have such narratives about themselves told and retold at holiday gatherings. “This Is Us” is filled with such stories.
Even more effective than the use of family narrative for me, is the music that puts “This Is Us” in a class by itself. There is consistently some kind of emotionally evocative music playing underneath the action. In Season 1, as Rebecca gets ready to go out on a blind date, leading to her meeting Jack, Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” plays in the background. A popular wedding tune, the song speaks to the unexpected, unplanned moments in life, such as who a person might wind up with as a mate and where life might lead.
Sometimes the music takes center stage and nowhere is that done more effectively than in the episode titled “Memphis” in Season 1. It’s where, storytelling, tough subject matter and music all come together as Randall travels with his biological father, William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones), whom he didn’t know as a child, to his native Memphis.
Randall, who was left at a fire station by William shortly after birth, was adopted by Jack and Rebecca Pearson as she was still in the hospital following the birth of Kevin and Kate. A third child was stillborn.
Randall’s journey to identity as a Black man who was raised in a white family is one of the richest anywhere on TV. Having found William as an adult and invited the man into his home and family’s life, Randall now discovers his father is dying of cancer. The road trip is an end of their journey as father and son.
In terms of storytelling, you have two great narrative structures at play: the road trip, an American staple, and the hero quest, with an older wise man, in this case William, trying to impart his hard-earned wisdom to a disciple, his son. And all of it unfolds against a background of the imminent death of this figure who has become beloved by both characters in the series and viewers.
William is a musician with a once promising career in Memphis as a songwriter before he left as a young man to help his ill mother. In the time-shifting narrative agility of the series, viewers are immersed in a scene from William’s youth at a Memphis nightclub where he worked as a keyboard player in his cousin’s R&B band. He hands his cousin the first song he wrote for the band, “We Can Always Come Back to This.” It is about love, memories and being physically separated from someone you love. Even though the song speaks about a young William seeing his mother off at the train station as she heads north to Pittsburgh, it later is also about his relationship with Randall.
The performance of the song is nothing short of transcendent as the audience in the club responds with shouts of affirmation to dynamic chord changes and soulful lyrics. The rhythm of the camera movement is in perfect sync with the rhythm of the ballad. Even now after about a dozen viewings, the YouTube video still chokes me up.
The episode brings William full circle with Randall looking on as his ailing father sits down at the keyboard for one last moment with his cousin’s band and the past he left behind. William dies in Memphis, but Randall finds a new lease on life from their journey.
I can’t stop this fifth season or the series from ultimately coming to an end. I guess that’s why I have been playing that video so much lately. I can always come back to that for a powerful and evocative sense of why I love this series.
The Season 5 finale airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.