When We Said Goodbye To The Pearsons, Did an Era For Broadcast Television End As Well?
Last night, in a typically emotional fashion, millions of viewers said goodbye to Kate, Kevin and Randall as well as the rest of the always expanding Pearson clan. For three years loyal fans of NBC’s magnificent This is Us have known the end was coming, and after flashforwards at the end of every season since Season 3, we’ve known that the goodbyes were going to be agonizing.
The final season was, as almost every season of This is Us has been brilliant and excruciating often within the same two minutes. By the time the fifth season ended, we were already preparing for what seemed to be the most heartbreaking moment of all: watching the Pearson clan gather around the deathbed of the matriarch Rebecca (Mandy Moore, the series too frequently unheralded guiding light.) The season finale had already dropped two very painful bombs: the fact that Kevin (Justin Hartley) was not going to marry the mother of his children and the fact that Kate (Chrissy Metz) was at some point going to leave Toby (Chris Sullivan) the man who had seemed to be her soul mate since the series premiere and remarry.
And as you’d expect, the final season had moments that were always painful. By far the most agonizing moments were the slow motion breakup of Kate and Toby, which began when Toby moved to San Francisco for a new job that led to a long distance relationship that slowly eroded, then shattered the two’s marriage. The fate of this relationship made it very hard for me to watch the final season of the series: that a love that had been tested by so many things over the past five seasons: skittishness on both sides, a miscarriage and a pregnancy that left with them a blind child, Toby’s determination to get healthy to be around for his son, and his supporting Kate through so many ambitions — would finally collapse. Considering everything the Pearson clan has been through over the history of the series, I really hoped that there was just some way that Kate — who has taken her share of grief over the course of the series and who had more than her share of struggles — could get through her problems with Toby. I’m not saying I was pleased altogether with the resolution, but in retrospect it may have been a message that the writers have been playing with on and off with both Kevin and Kate: the two of them were so focused on the happiness of Jack and Rebecca’s marriage that its ghost had haunted every relationship they would be in. Perhaps in that sense, they were trying to say that even if your parents have a seemingly perfect marriage, there are no guarantees that finding the perfect mate guarantees the same for you or even that the most likely contender is going to be the one you end up with. Toby seems to have accepted that to when he had an exchange with her in the opening minutes that even though their marriage didn’t work out, he wouldn’t change a thing.
Kevin spent a lot of Season 6 struggling as well; taking the role in a reboot of the series that made him famous for the benefit of his children, still struggling to find happiness, and try to secure his bond with his uncle Nick (Griffin Dunne). Watching him try to be a good father has always been a struggle for him — the shadow of his parents has hanged heavily over him — and he has spent the entirety of the series trying to find love. Finally, the night before Kate’s wedding, through the guidance of the increasingly diminishing Rebecca, he reunited with Sophie, his childhood sweetheart who in a way he has spent his whole life his chasing. It’s worth noting, thought, that by far his biggest accomplishment was managing to get Nicky back into real life, something that would have seemed absolutely incomprehensible when we met him in Season 3. One of the most touching moments of the finale came when Nicky just before Rebecca’s funeral, in his typically sarcastic fashion ‘blamed’ Kevin for dragging him back into the real world. “You really screwed up my life,” he said with a smile and its telling that one of the final shots of the series — Nicky happily playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey with his grandnieces and nephews — was one of the most powerful moments of the series.
We have always worried the most about Randall, played for six incredible years by that genius Sterling K. Brown. At the beginning of the season, we saw him with Beth saying that three of his parents were dead and his fourth was dying. As Rebecca continued to wither away, we have watched as Randall increasingly deteriorated emotionally: who can forget the very first flashforward we saw back in Season 2 when he said: “I’m ready to see her.” When the final episode opened, we saw Randall finally facing the inevitable after nearly a decade. Beth (give Susan Kalechi Watson an Emmy nod, please!) did her gentle mocking of him, saying he’d start going to funerals of other people’s parents or hanging around by his tombstone and he looked immersed in gloom. But in a beautiful moment Déjà, the child he fostered and has become the integral part of Randall’s life told him he would have a grandson and that they would name it William, after Randall’s birth father. “I never met him,” Déjà told him, “but I know him thanks to you.” One truly joyous moment came as Randall dissolved into delight that he would finally have a boy in his life.
So after all of the heartache that we have been through this season — and this doesn’t even include ‘Miguel’ where we finally learned Miguel’s story just before he died and ‘The Train’ where we saw Rebecca’s final journey as she went to her death meeting everybody who had been a part of her life, finally ended in bed with Jack — what was the final episode of This is Us about? Honestly, it was as emotional as all of them in that there was so much ordinariness to it. We got to see an utterly ordinary day in the Pearsons childhood. Randall’s mathletes was cancelled, so the Pearson spent a day around the house. Kevin and Randall were gloomy, but Kate was excited. When the rain disrupted their fun, Kate seemed to notice that things were changing. Kevin and Randall stormed off to their rooms because of their feelings about trivial things. Kevin confessed to his mother that he couldn’t do a pull-up and he was embarrassed of looking bad in front of the girls. Randall confessed that his event hadn’t been cancelled but he was being punished because he was teased by someone and reacted badly. (I’m not sure what was funnier: Randall’s going to the worst case scenario, something the adult Randall did or Jack’s reaction: “It’s hard to punish a kid who gives a far harsher one than I ever could.) It ended with Jack teaching first Randall and then Kevin how to shave, mentioning almost casually about how you never notice the big moments when they happen. It was a simple ordinary day for the Pearson — and based on what we saw, probably the last memory Rebecca had before she passed.
In the final minutes, we got a sense of what the Big Three are going to do with their future: Kate is going to continue helping musician and starting hating other blind rock stars ‘like her son.” Kevin is going to open a non-profit for veterans. And Randall, who backed into a political career way back in Season 3, announced casually that the DNC was sending him to a state fair in Iowa — which anyone who has a casually following of politics knows that the bread crumbs for a Presidential run. (For the record, Randall’s life story is infinitely more interesting than Young Rock’s already.) Kate then asked the question: “What if we drift?” — not unreasonable considering that there bond has been their parents more than anything throughout the series. But anyone who watched everything the three of them have gone through for six seasons knows that, no matter what divisions they go three, petty or more serious, they will always come back to each other. The Big Three then quietly gave their projections of Jack’s chant for them, the one that has always moved us throughout the series, and then watched as they began to mock each other like all siblings should.
There is a real possibility that the series finale of This is Us is more than the end of just one of the most powerful dramas in television history. It is conceivable — perhaps even probably — that we may have seen the very last commercial and award winning drama that network television will ever do. When This Is Us was nominated for Best Dramas by the Emmys in 2017, it marked the first time in five years the Emmys had nominated a series for Best Drama since The Good Wife in 2011. There is a fair amount of blame to be laid at the fate of the Emmys ridiculous bias towards cable and streaming over the last decade at the cost of ignoring broadcast dramas, but the fact remains that for most of the 2010s, broadcast television more or less surrendered the fight on that front.
This is Us was a revelation in that sense, in more than the fact that it was a broadcast nominee. In the era of Peak TV, most critically acclaimed television dramas on every platform settled on an antihero based series (some females did share in that) or increasingly serialized dramas built around a mythology. This is Us was the first nominee for Best Drama since Friday Night Lights to center its story on fundamentally good people and happy marriages. All of the Pearson clan were flawed to an extent, but all of them were nice, warm people you want to spend an hour with. You cried a lot with the Pearsons because you wanted good things to happen to him and there was so much suffering, and while there was a mythology at the center — how did Jack die? What happened to Uncle Nicky? What’s going on with the flashforwards — they were radically different from the ones on shows like Westworld and Handmaid’s Tale because they were human mysteries not about solving a puzzle. (Also, they were mysteries the characters knew the answer to, only the audience didn’t, and the audience got let in.)
I think that, along with the high quality of the performances and writing, have led to a higher degree of recognition for awards over the past five years. It was nominated by the Emmys for Best Drama four of its first five seasons (and really it should have been nominated over The Handmaid’s Tale and Ozark in 2020) and has won a lot of acting awards over the years. The lion’s share of them has been in the Guest Actor category, but it’s hard to argue that veteran character actors Ron Cephas Jones and Gerald McRaney didn’t earn them by now. It’s also won Best Dramatic Ensemble from the SAG awards in 2018 and 2019 and has received many nominations from the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Critics Awards over the past five years (Brown has been the only cast member to win either, but the latter has been willing to acknowledge the talents of Hartley and Metz on multiple occasions, something the Emmys have never done.) I hope that the institutional memory of the Emmys holds out this summer and gives as many nominations to the series as possible, including Moore for ‘The Train’ and Milo Ventimiglia who has been tragically under-recognized.
So here’s a bigger question: regardless of how the Emmys decide to treat the show this season, will This is Us be the last broadcast series ever nominated by them for Best Drama? I have to say I’m not optimistic. If anything, the quality of shows from the networks has diminished even more since 2016, which most series being procedurals or more convoluted mythology based series. Add to that that are even more competitors in streaming and cable competing, the odds grow even thinner. But the thing is when The Good Wife came to the end of its run after five consecutive season of brilliant work being ignored by the Emmys in favor of series like Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, I wrote not long after it ended that we would likely never see a broadcast drama ever nominated again. I wrote that in May of 2016. This is Us premiered that September. That’s one lesson we learned loud and clear from the show: no matter how you plan things, you never know what awaits us in the future.