WHAT IT’S ABOUT The closely guarded first-season finale — no review copies were made available — has a name (“Moonshadow”) and otherwise lots of questions. Will viewers find out how Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died? (Showrunners have already hinted that the answer is no.) What will Randall (Sterling K. Brown) do, now that he’s quit his job? Will Kevin (Justin Hartley) head to Los Angeles for the movie — or was that call from Ron Howard just another dream (like the one with Katie Couric)? What about Toby (Chris Sullivan) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) — who confided she was responsible for her father’s death? Meanwhile, Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is on tour, but will she meet with Jack?
MY SAY “This Is Us” wraps a sensational freshman season Tuesday. The major networks haven’t had what used to be called a “zeitgeist” series for years, or a show that tapped some deep, inexpressible feeling in viewers’ lives. “This Is Us” has done that.
To those who have been paying attention — about 17 million a week, by NBC’s count — “This Is Us” already has hinted at what to expect in the finale, at least in emotional terms. Two episodes in particular offer the best guidance.
“The Big Day” (Jan. 17) took place in 1980, when Rebecca was about to give birth to triplets and Dr. Katowski (Gerald McRaney) stepped in to handle the delivery after her obstetrician got appendicitis. That same day, Joe (Brian Oblak), a fireman, asked his priest for a “small miracle” to save his failing marriage. He later found a baby boy — Randall, of course — outside the firehouse.
The stories looped back to the premiere, when Dr. K was introduced, and viewers learned he was grieving for his wife, who had died of cancer. Randall was adopted by Jack and Rebecca. That small miracle also helped lead Dr. K out of the darkness of his own soul.
The episode’s real power was in those words “small miracle,” also the real power of “This Is Us.” By collapsing the timeline of this episode with earlier ones in the season, “This Is Us” laid bare its intentions, and to a certain extent its heart, by insisting that if you, too, could collapse time, then you, too, could clearly see the texture and meaning of your life. You’d see apparently random events in a new light, maybe the tragedies, too. Patterns would emerge, also connections. What seemed meaningless back when it happened would assume importance in hindsight. A small “miracle” might become a huge miracle, and not just in your life, but in the lives of other people, some you might know, some you don’t. Lines of connections with others would be drawn and clarified. To an extent, your small miracle would become theirs.
That other key episode was “Memphis” (Feb. 21), when Randall and his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), took a road trip. William condensed an entire series into two beautiful lines. “Isn’t it strange how the world sticks and moves like that?” he said when finding some “treasures” he hid behind a brick as a child. Just before dying, with Randall holding him, he said, “The two best things in my life are the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end.”
The interconnectedness of human life. How small miracles lead to other miracles. How each life matters. How actions have unintended consequences.
Those are the messages of “This Is Us” and, yes, those were the same messages of “It’s a Wonderful Life” back in 1946, in the dark days after World War II, when George Bailey was about to jump off the bridge into the freezing river before Clarence interceded. “Strange, isn’t it?” said the angel in search of his wings. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” Unapologetically sentimental, and surprisingly deep, “This Is Us” is a show with a big heart and considerable love for its characters and even for its viewers. Its message is compassionate, optimistic, full of hope for a better tomorrow, and a conviction that those oft-cited angels of our better nature will eventually prevail. It’s comfort food for viewers craving the same thing and who believe the same thing.
When was the last time a TV show did something like this, or did it so well? Strange indeed how the world sticks and moves.
BOTTOM LINE The best network series of 2016-17 offers a powerful message of hope and redemption. Little wonder it’s a hit.