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Why we see ourselves in 'This Is Us'

Praise and criticism for NBC's acclaimed "This is Us" have ranged from its embrace of diversity to its "feelings-focu...

Posted: Jan. 25, 2018 12:39 PM
Updated: Jan. 25, 2018 12:39 PM

Praise and criticism for NBC's acclaimed "This is Us" have ranged from its embrace of diversity to its "feelings-focused" emotional intensity. Tuesday night, Twitter exploded with the reveal of how Jack Pearson, Milo Ventimiglia's beloved character on the show, will die. The show had long since previously let its audience know that Jack was headed for an untimely death, so the anticipation of finding out how has been a major thread of dramatic tension. The reveal is, as Milo Ventimiglia told EW.com, "soul-crushing," to the point that his co-star Sterling K. Brown, who has won multiple awards for his portrayal of Ventimiglia's son, took to Twitter to ask fans seriously if they are OK.

Among the heartbreaking details (spoiler alert): Jack cleans up after watching the Super Bowl with his wife, and a dish towel catches fire from sparks from a faulty slow cooker. The episode ends with scenes of Jack trying to save his family from the flames. The true "end" is yet to come...in the second part of the episode, set to air after NBC's broadcast of the Super Bowl. To see Jack, even when fans knew he was going to die, meet his tragic end after watching a game that the viewers themselves have just watched, pitches the drama and emotive frenzy surrounding Jack's fate into an entirely new register.

By drafting the viewer as participant in a metafiction, this two-part episode puts a finger on a critical dimension of how we mourn. It takes an activity that is itself a form of fantasy about American identity -- watching the Super Bowl in a setting of domestic comfort -- and twists it like a knife cutting to the quick.

Television has a history of helping America mourn. In November 1963, Walter Cronkite's emotional announcement on CBS of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy helped open up a collective mechanism for grief that made Kennedy's funeral procession, watched in over 90% of all homes in the US, the largest viewing audience ever recorded to that point. For those of us who came of age at some point during the second half of the 20th century, this pattern repeated itself: Americans finding a visual language for their pain by watching images -- and testimonials of others' grief -- flash across their living room, school cafeteria, or airport screens. Vietnam. The Munich Olympics. The Challenger explosion. Columbine. September 11th.

But "This is Us" is a timely reminder that literary and fictional stories too have a history of helping us grieve, re-write, better understand or (unfortunately) turn away from who we are and who we want to become as Americans. Historical fiction can become a form of cultural memory, a way of saying things society can't say any other way. In 1977, for instance, the year following America's bicentennial, more than half the American population at the time tuned in to watch the mini-series "Roots," adapted from Alex Haley's novel, making it part of the shorthand for talking about slavery.

William Wells Brown's novel "Clotel; Or the President's Daughter," first published in 1853, offered up a story of the lives of Thomas Jefferson's fictionalized slave daughters. Reports of Jefferson's "relationship" with Sally Hemings had surfaced in the press even while he was still president, but for a country unready to face that, Brown's novel nudged readers to reckon with reality by proxy.

Or you could visit Trinity Churchyard not to see Alexander Hamilton's grave, but instead the marker for Charlotte Temple, the fictional heroine of one of America's first bestselling novels, published in England in 1791 and Philadelphia in 1794. Mourning Charlotte, who (spoiler alert) died after being seduced by a British officer, helped American readers of the time -- and visitors to this grave, presumably as well -- define themselves emotionally as Americans, British no longer.

So where can we fit "This is Us" into this tradition? Confession: I have never watched it. As the mother of a young child, I was put off somehow by its rawness, as too real or too risky to open myself up to. As a cultural critic, I respect everything about the show's reported narrative richness, and I watch how my friends and colleagues react to it on social media week in and week out.

After reading about this episode, I reached out to some of them. One childhood friend told me, "I got hooked on the show because the first couple of episodes had huge twists. But then I just enjoyed finding out more about this unconventional family."

A woman I've known since I was a teenager, who actually watches together each week with an intergenerational group of women who call themselves the "TV Girls," told me this show makes her cry at some point during every single episode, but said this latest one was different. Like the characters in the show, she too lost a parent as an adolescent. "Watching these events leading up to the tragedy, I wish I could stop time for the characters," she said. "What I love most about the show is connecting with the characters and the way it shows that grief doesn't just magically go away quickly. Each person, even siblings who grew up in the same house with the same parents, deal with grief uniquely and in his or her own time."

A very close friend, who has also lost a parent, told me she was brought to tears not by the dramatic scenes of fire in the episode but by the small details that came before it -- the ones she says connect grieving people like her to the show, which handles them with care. "It was the way that he [Jack] just cleaned up the kitchen so matter-of-factly," she said. "Just saw a small need to fill at home and addressed it. And he was thorough about it -- didn't just clean up the counters, but also swept."

A woman I've known since we were children together said she loves the show because it "feels like real life," a feeling echoed by almost everyone I spoke to -- and that in the wake of this episode, is sobering. It's a "reminder that we can be watching the Super Bowl and cleaning up a kitchen in one instant and it can be your last hour alive on Earth," she told me. "That could be my family tonight."

A friend of a friend, younger than I, said she watches the show with her younger brother. They started watching "ironically at first," as they expected just another sappy family drama, "but [we] became hooked within 10 minutes." She expressed admiration for the show's creators: "I appreciate that they're being straightforward [about the death] and I am really, really sad that the time has come for Jack to die before our eyes."

As a fan of other work by Brown, Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, I know that part of me would enjoy watching "This Is Us." I love its obvious respect for authenticity, its racially inclusive and body positive casting. But now that I know how Jack likely dies, I'm even more afraid to go there: like the characters of Rebecca, Kate, Kevin, and Randall, I too know what it's like to lose a family member, specifically in a house fire started by a faulty appliance. There is no poetry for that, no fiction to give it meaning. It just is, and it cannot be undone.

I know I'm not alone in feeling that way. And I think that's exactly what resonates with the audience who watches "This is Us." It's a show that in a time of anger and uncertainty takes a stand that says: This is who we are, for better and for worse. It requires emotional bravery to watch. Collectively speaking, when the fans expressed their sorrow on Twitter at the tragedy of Jack's fate, and when they presumably do so again following the Super Bowl, many of them will be saying: This is who we are and this is how we feel. Visibility matters.

Sterling K. Brown said as much about the show in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. When he accepted his award for best supporting actor for his role in "This Is Us," Brown acknowledged the show's creator, Dan Fogelman, saying: "You wrote a role for a black man, that can only be played by a black man. And so what I appreciate so much about this thing is that I'm being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am."

I am reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem, "I Measure Every Grief I Meet," which begins: "I measure every Grief I meet / With narrow, probing, eyes -- / I wonder if It weighs like Mine -- / Or has an Easier size. / I wonder if They bore it long -- / Or did it just begin -- "

The way we share emotion in the age of social media isn't always beautiful, but in "This Is Us" and the fan reaction to it, we have found, perhaps, one answer to Dickinson. Because for fans of the show who are reaching out to each other, they don't have to wonder if the grief weighs differently, or how long they've borne it. They are talking to each other, and they know the answers.

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