Family Mashup: Who knew Super Bowls were so sad?

Super Bowl Sunday
Ron Batzdorff / NBC/Courtesy

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‘This Is Us’

‘Super Bowl Sunday’

“Super Bowl Sunday” offered a satisfying hour of “This Is Us.” It wrapped up the prolonged mystery surrounding Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) untimely demise and laid a solid bedrock for the show’s future in the process. Furthermore, it managed to do what few emotionally charged dramas have been able to do — it didn’t linger.

Is Jack Pearson a superhero? Yes, yes he is. From quickly thinking on his feet to rescuing everyone from a burning house to going back in for the dog, the opening act of “Super Bowl Sunday” is definitive proof that Jack is the greatest of all time. Not greatest as an athlete, not greatest as a singer. Just greatest. Period.

You could place the fire rescue in any big-budget superhero tentpole, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Jack and, say, Superman. The cinematic stakes of the first few minutes are not just for empty thrills, however. It’s the creators of “This Is Us” reassuring longtime fans of the show that they are aware of the extended length of time that it has taken for us to reach that point, and that the long wait will indeed be worth it.

As soon as Jack re-emerges from the fire — a dog and a collection of precious memorabilia in hand — a time bomb (of Kleenex) starts ticking. If Jack didn’t perish in the fire, that means he must have collapsed on the way to, or in, the hospital.

Here, “This Is Us” could have easily taken the well-trodden path and showcased a final, operatic conversation between Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), or Jack and the kids. But it doesn’t.

Everyone is in a state of relative calm. Sure, there was a fire, but they are all OK. Sure, Jack seems uncharacteristically disoriented, but that’s understandable given the second-degree burns he suffered. The doctors say he has inhaled a large amount of soot, but all signs point to him being fine. And so it’s business as usual for Rebecca when Jack wants to see the football highlights, and he sarcastically tells her that she’s getting in the TV’s way. She’ll just go and get something to eat. What could go wrong?

Staying true to its reputation of being a “catharsis jugular,” “This Is Us” quietly amps up the imminent devastation at this point. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, the directors of “Super Bowl Sunday,” demonstrate a visual flair not often seen on network television. While Rebecca talks on the phone with her children in real time in the foreground, nurses and various staff members are shown rushing into Jack’s hospital room in slow motion in the background. The goings-on in the background are so subtly placed that they may be hard to pick up on an initial viewing.

The absence of a score or a swelling orchestra further lends an understated delicacy to the scene. In fact, the atypical silence is intentional, as it allows for a brief auditory glimpse of Jack’s voice when Rebecca reaches down to the vending machine to grab a candy bar. “Bec?” he faintly calls out to her, as if somehow his spirit or otherwordly presence is in the room with Rebecca.

Rebecca doesn’t know what has happened, though. She just stepped aside to check in with the kids and get a candy bar. A doctor soon comes in and tells her the words that viewers have been primed to expect for the past 32 episodes. Jack is no more. He died of a massive heart attack caused by smoke inhalation from the fire.

Yes, the rest of the episode will reduce you to a puddle of tears. You will consider taking “bereavement leave” from midterms or work.

But there is something about Jack’s death, and Rebecca’s reaction to it in particular, that is … beautiful. We are spared the pain of seeing Jack’s corpse for ourselves — we just see a brief reflection of his body in the hospital door’s window. Instead, the camera painstakingly focuses on Rebecca. Again, there’s no wistful or sappy melody playing in the background, nor is there a protracted sequence in which Rebecca tries to wake Jack up. It’s just her, her tears and her quick but fleeting flashes of Jack — the first time they met, the times when he winked and smiled at her when all hope seemed to be lost — and her life, a life that will never be the same again.

Mandy Moore deserves all the awards she can get for the work she does in “Super Bowl Sunday.” Watching Rebecca break down and then somewhat piece herself back together for the sake of her children is a heartbreaking but necessary road for “This Is Us” to take, and it couldn’t have successfully traversed that treacherous journey were it not for Moore’s exemplary performance.

Even though a large portion of this episode is devoted to the “Jack has a goatee” (a nickname that will sadly have to be replaced following his death) time period, the present timeline boasts its fair share of highlights as well. During the 20th anniversary of Jack’s death, Kate (Chrissy Metz) begins to share her grief with Toby (Chris Sullivan), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) starts reconnecting with his daughter Tess (Eris Baker) again.

Oh, and Déjà (Lyric Ross) is back! Oh, and remember that cute kid we saw back in “Number Three”? Turns out, that kid is part of a future timeline wherein the now-adult Tess (Iantha Richardson) has become a social worker, and Randall is rocking that grey hair as the old dad. Since it looks like this future timeline is here to stay for upcoming seasons, it might be best to nickname it “old man Randall.”

Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Rebecca’s story arcs in the present timeline ultimately prove to be the most compelling, with Kevin finally pouring out his heart to his departed father. The single take under the tree that tracks Kevin’s conversation with Jack lends a degree of serenity and tranquility to the otherwise emotional behemoth that is “Super Bowl Sunday.” Rebecca’s portion of the episode is also soothing, and it is a much-needed reminder of the fact that, even in death, Jack is still somehow around.

Overall, “Super Bowl Sunday” proves to be the finest hour that “This Is Us” has produced so far. It is deliberate in its subtlety and elicits some of the best performances in the entire run of the nearly two-season-old drama. Special shoutouts to Moore and Milo Ventimiglia for especially killing it (pun not intended) this time!

The Car’

Family Mashup, "The Car"

Ron Batzdorff/NBC/Courtesy

“The Car” is an unofficial ending to the trilogy of episodes revolving around Jack’s death. While not much plot drives this quieter denouement, it is still a necessary showcase for the ingrained optimism that used to be the foundation of “This Is Us.”  

The Pearsons’ long-serving car is used as the chief framing device for this episode as it jumps across the two timelines in the past that we have explored so far. The time jumps, par for the course, never feel off-putting or jarring and are seamlessly threaded throughout. Admittedly, much of the episode revolves around how perfect Jack was, but “The Car” is able to walk the fine line of obvious, one-dimensional sentimentality by reminding us through quick shots that it’s the characters who are recalling happy memories of their late father and not the show itself.

Rebecca’s  flashbacks of Jack consistently prove to be the most riveting portions of “The Car.” Though “This Is Us” has been dabbling in the Pearsons’ past for about 32 episodes, this episode suggests that we are a long way off from getting a complete picture of their family history. Take Rebecca’s cancer scare, for example. Not only did it weave together an organic explanation of Jack’s favorite tree — the tree upon which his ashes were later scattered — but it also sketched an intriguing facet of Jack and Rebecca’s relationship. Rebecca’s flashbacks take great pain to show that Jack was her anchor. Now that he is gone, how will she function as the new “Jack” of her family?

That question isn’t explored nearly enough by other dramas. Usually, when a person passes away, there is a brief period of mourning before the characters begin to honor that person’s legacy. In “This Is Us,” loss is about far more than that. It is that irrevocable moment in your life when the fabric of your reality has been torn away. It leaves you rudderless, anchorless and, for a long period of time, hesitant. Yes, there will come a time when you decide that enough is enough, that the person you lost wouldn’t have wanted you to live like this. But the road to get to that point can (and should) be mined for all the explosive catharsis it can offer, and “This Is Us” wisely chooses to do just that.

Of course, another highlight of the episode is the return of Dr. K (Gerald McRaney). We wanted another broadly positive and confident speech in his soothing, Matthew McConaughey-esque voice after the emotional knockout of the past three episodes, and he more than delivered here.

Seeing Rebecca taking Dr. K’s advice to heart and gathering any shred of will she has left to be the new “Jack” of her family is a deeply relatable transformation. The final sequence, wherein the Pearsons scatter some of Jack’s ashes around his tree and Rebecca begins to take charge of her kids’ lives, functions as the necessarily messy — albeit complete — end to the storyline teasing out the cause and immediate aftermath of Jack’s death.

Oh, and if you needed another reason to pile on the tissues, Jack has a little monologue in the end in the past. It is a little cheesy, but it’s the good kind of cheese. The “This Is Us” kind of cheese.

‘Modern Family’

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Arjun Sarup covers television. Contact him at [email protected].