Fans of the TV series This Is Us know which character provides the glue holding it all together. Sadly and ironically, that character is dead.
This might be the only show in history where a lead character can die yet still appear in every episode … where the actor portraying him still has a job. No, he’s not a ghost. Like a lot of intriguing books and movies these days, this series is written in split-time. With the brilliance and technology only available in TV and movies, nearly every episode leaps from present-day scenes to flashbacks and occasionally to flash-forwards. The viewer can keep track of which decade they’re in by the styles, and—in some cases—different actors portraying the characters as children or teenagers.
|Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson|
The family patriarch is Viet Nam vet, Jack Pearson. The first episode opens on his 36th birthday in 1980, the same day his wife Rebecca delivers their much-anticipated triplets—two boys and a girl. When one of the boys is stillborn, this white couple ends up taking home their two surviving children as well as an African American newborn left at a fire hall. Not until all the characters’ stories converge at the end do you realize you’ve also been watching the 36th birthday of those three kids.
Jack and Rebecca raise the kids as “The Big Three,” doing their best to learn and honor Randall’s heritage as he navigates life in a white environment. The writers brilliantly create contemporary and historical scenes that weave in and out, raising major questions at the end of each episode to compel the viewer to watch “just one more.”
Everyone’s hero, Jack, dies when the kids are seventeen. The writers know better than to make Jack perfectly flawless. Flashback scenes reveal his traumatic past with an abusive father, PTSD from the war, alcoholism, and gambling. But love at first sight of Rebecca conquers all. Jack becomes an overcomer who can love his family well, who lays aside his owns dreams to provide for them, who dispenses wisdom and devotion and guidance by the bucketful. Every wedding anniversary, though his wife goes to great lengths to give him a special gift, he always manages to one-up her with a grand gesture requiring superhuman forethought. He creates happy and funny memories for his kids, who carry on the traditions so that even the grandchildren who never met Jack feel they know him. What’s not to love?
Except for the 1950s scenes from his childhood, Jack Pearson is portrayed by Milo Ventimiglia. Born in 1977 to an actual Viet Nam veteran, Ventimiglia was born with damaged facial nerves causing the left side of his mouth to remain immobile. The result is a distinctive and charming lopsided grin that has clearly not hindered his career. In an interview with US Weekly, Ventimiglia said that after playing Jack in his 20s, 30s, and 40s, he feels he knows Jack so well, he sometimes must focus on separating himself from the character.
This Is Us will end with Season Six next year, and producers promise a satisfying ending—a guarantee far easier to make in the world of fiction than in real life. Fictional fathers, whatever their struggles, can provide inspiration for what a family can be. The best ones call us to a higher level of decency and deepen our longing for all that’s right and good.
The Bible says a lot about men of integrity. I like this plain and simple paraphrase of Proverbs 20:7: “God-loyal people, living honest lives, make it much easier for their children.”