THE WORLD IS A DUMPSTERFIRE, CAN THIS IS US SAVE US FROM THE FLAMES? (THIS IS US RECAP)
It was halfway through the much-advertised post-Super Bowl This Is Us episode that I realized we, as a society, had reached Peak Debordian Spectacle. In this scene, Steely Doctor comes to the hospital waiting room to tell Rebecca that Jack has passed away from a cardiac arrest, brought on by excessive smoke inhalation. In shock, Rebecca takes a bite from a Mars bar so big, it emanates a thunderous echo of chewing throughout the entire nation, inspiring Dorito’s new patriarchy-approved less crunchy chip—for the ladies! Steely Doctor tries to convey the necessary information about her husband’s passing but Rebecca is too incredulous. Jack had been breathing, walking, and talking only a mere minutes ago. How could the love of her life suddenly be gone? How could her hero succumb to a crock pot tragedy? How could the perfect father give up under the pressure of a collapsed lung? It is only when Rebecca see her husband’s lifeless corpse on the hospital bed that reality sinks in. Mandy Moore is at her very A Walk to Remember-best, her pretty face contorting into pain, sadness, and anger. I am almost transported into its solemnity, its fictional grief. ALMOST. Because right as I was to sense this, uh, thing they call feelings that I’ve heard about so much, NBC DECIDES TO FLASH AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN #SHARETHEMOMENT PROMPTING FANS AND VIEWERS TO…TO DO WHAT EXACTLY? TAKE A SELFIE WITH A LOVED ONE’S DEAD BODY? A GROUP PHOTO OF EVERYONE CRYING BIG FAT FICTIONAL TEARS? A PANORAMA OF AN ENTIRE LIVING ROOM LOSING THEIR GODDAM MINDS?
“Guy Debord was right,” I thought to myself. “We are now living in a society of spectacle, where we alienate ourselves more and more from direct lived experience in favor of mediating our social relationships through an image. In this case, an image of us [fake] grieving for a [fake] person so we can get [fake] reactions from other viewers partaking in their [fake] sense of loss.”
I swear this will make sense, but let’s start by taking a step back.
Adult Kevin and Rebecca
I’m going to start with the most boring of all couples. Not, Miguel and Rebecca. There’s something seedy about their paring and I can’t wait to get to that whole scandal. I’m talking about Rebecca and Kevin. In my defense, I’m not calling them boring to be insulting. It’s actually what a mother-son relationship should be, especially that of a pampered alcoholic and his never-aging ma. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and, though I’m sure the date changes every year, the Pearsons have dubbed it the day of mourning. Each one partakes in their own personal tradition of grief. Rebecca makes Jack’s favorite lasagna and eats it while she watches the game, and you know what? It actually sounds like a lovely, quiet tribute to the man she loved. Oh and she also waits for Jack to send her a sign from beyond the grave cause no one is more susceptible to magical thinking than suburban moms. FACT. As for Kevin, he gets drunk and has mindless sex which is almost too realistic of an assessment for a show like This Is Us. Thank you for making Kevin as predictable as he should be, writers.
Except for this year. Kevin isn’t downing Red Bull and Jack Daniels before gifting an unsuspecting super model with the worst sex she’s ever had in her life. Nope, this year Kevin is doing self-care, Gwyneth-style. He meditates, he eats a healthy breakfast, he whitens his teeth with what I can only imagine is a strip laced with unicorn sperm. What can I say? Dude has nice teeth. He is exfoliating himself raw, until he can finally face the last of his 12-steps apologies. With every single thread of hair gelled up, Kevin goes to the tree where Jack’s ashes were scattered. It’s the first time he’s been there since the funeral and Kevin does that actor thing, where they talk about their feelings out loud, so the audience doesn’t have to strain their little minds inferring anything. Kevin is sorry for a lot. He’s sorry he wasn’t there that night. He’s sorry that the last thing he said to his beloved father was awful. I don’t hear him saying he’s sorry for being more boring than instant mashed potatoes made with skim milk and Heartland ennui, but I’m sure it was implied. Kevin then turns to his favorite subject, himself and his rich man anguish. Kevin’s couple of bad decades sound like a dream come true for almost everyone else on this earth. Give me a sitcom, an excess of martinis, and mindless sexy times with models, por favor. But fine, I get it, he wants to make his Dad proud and that’s what he promises the tree he will do.
Kevin calls Rebecca to ask if Jack has sent a sign from heaven yet. They have a nice, tidy chat about how it must have been a terrible time for her. Kevin tells her about his heart-to-heart with a piece of bark. He admits to not knowing if it’s the correct tree, which Rebecca takes as Jack’s sign. Even Jack is SO aware that his son is a doofus, that he feels compelled to interrupt his eternal rest to say, “Yo, Babe, Kevin might be a cutie but he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. That crockpot had more of an intelligent spark than our son.”
Rebecca sighs, content. “This year he sent me you, Kevin. Jack sent me you.”
Our second boring couple: Kate and Toby. I’m convinced the writers outsource their love story to a pack of semi-feral 12-year-olds raised on a steady diet of Lifetime movies, Jodi Picoult, and Ugg boots. It’s romance for people that have never traveled outside of Hinsdale, IL and don’t care to.
On this particular day, Kate decides to wallow. Kidding! Kate always wallows, but today Kate wallows extra hard. Her grieving ritual includes rewatching the video Jack secretly taped of her singing for her college admissions and reeling over the idea that she killed her father. Fool! Everyone knows Miguel killed Jack by distracting him at the mall when Jack was looking for batteries, making This Is Us a modern retelling of Hamlet. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. In any case, as she’s watching the tape in the one remaining VCR in these continental United States, the darn machine makes a strange noise. The tape is not looking good. Toby rushes in to save the day with the claim that he has a guy. Toby totally looks like a dude who always has a guy, but half of them are his dumb cousin Carl so the risk is high.
As they wait for Toby’s guy to fix the tape, Kate tells Toby that unlike other days, she has a good reason to wallow. It was her fault that Jack went back inside the burning home, exposing him to more smoke, and eventually dying. He did this because he couldn’t bear to disappoint Teen Kate by letting her dog perish in the fire. Before Toby can ruin the moment, his guy comes back victorious. The tape is fine, the footage is in the cloud, all is well. Except for that whole life-of-guilt that Kate has been carrying around forever.
Back home, Kate spews some nonsense about a broken window, Jack always trying to fix it, her family being stronger than her, I don’t know. What I do know is that this leads up to the Hinsdale, IL™ grand romantic declaration of Kate telling Toby that he was the one that made her believe in herself. This is where my hand reached into the TV to slap a bit of reality back into Kate’s raccoon-eyed face. Girlfriend, listen close: you cannot find validation in a man. You cannot posit your confidence into an external being with a penis. Let alone one whose name is Toby.
Mommy and Daddy Pearson
On to couple number 3, who are only semi-boring. At least you know that Mommy and Daddy Pearson had off-the-charts physical chemistry and the kind of smoldering Rust Belt desire that Bruce Springsteen sings about.
Most of this should not be too surprising to you, if you’ve been watching the episodes. Jack wakes up to a fiery hellscape that surely awaits the entire Trump administration once they drop dead from pure, unadulterated, stupid hubris. Jack and Rebecca are trapped in their room, Randall in his, and Kate is crying across the hall. Kevin is safely dry humping Teen Wallflower in the woods. A lot of nonsensical decisions are made that, I swear to god, I was willing to go along with. First, Jack feels compelled to bring everyone into the same room even though it would have made more sense for Rebecca and Randall to climb down the window and have Jack go to Kate’s room to help her jump out of her own window, with him falling beside her. Whatever, something about keeping the family together. With his strapping arms and the help of some sheets, he gingerly lowers them all to the ground before deciding to go back inside to rescue the dog. Now, a lot of ink has already been shed over whether this action was heroic or plain dumb. I am not one of the haters. I would 100% go back to rescue my dog and everything about Jack’s character makes me believe that this is a coherent choice for him to make.
What I can’t believe? Jack coming out with not only the dog, but also a bag full of photo albums, videotapes and other knickknacks from around the house. It’s like the dude went to Target and came out with only 1 item on his shopping list and about 50 others from the sales rack. As far as I’m concerned, Jack made himself a snack, caught a bit of the Super Bowl recap, and wrote Obama’s 2004 National Democratic Convention Speech. That’s how long he was in that damn fire. And he comes out, with some sexy sheen and a bit of soot, a conquering hero.
FINE. Fine. I was willing to go on this crazy, wild ride This Is Us had set up for us. I really was. I was ok with him refusing painkillers for his addiction. I was there for Rebecca’s total and complete disbelief. But when I saw that dumb call-to-action from NBC, I lost it. LOST IT. Not in the ugly cry kind of way that the execs at NBC were salivating for. I lost my cool. What are we doing? What are we all doing here???
This is where I remembered Guy Debord: French theorist, Debbie Downer and general buzzkill. Debord wrote about our warped relationship with mass media and the image way before anyone put on duck face for their Bumble profile pic. Yet what he predicted is almost Nostradamus-like in nature. He warned us of a time when our social relationships would be mediated by images. Instead of interacting with others, we interact with an image as a substitute for genuine emotion. In other words, instead of looking at all the fucked up shit that goes on around us and do something about it, we sit in quiet contemplation, emoting, creating an image of emoting and posting it on Twitter with a hashtag.
I don’t know, guys. I think the 2018 election is already driving me up the wall, the onslaught of news about sexual predators is leaving me emotionally exhausted, and the Super Bowl causes me genuine distress both on a social and personal level. Let’s just say it’s a huge trigger for me. The idea that the whole nation is so distraught over a show that they are urged to use a freaking hashtag about it, but do very little to effect any real change bummed me out. Like, Rebecca’s hair wasn’t even covered in smoke, ya know? Mandy Moore is supposed to have come out of a major fire with not even a tear in her tailored Steelers jersey? It’s all too much.
I know for a lot of you, the show is about catharsis and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The Internet has told me that some people appreciate the description of loss in the episode, some are survivors of fires and it helped them cope, some are simply happy to see someone like them on the screen. As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m part robot and the other part is pixie dust so I don’t know what emotions are like. What I do know is that catharsis, in its original sense, wasn’t meant to be some self-indulging nonsense where we all bawled our eyes out and then chucked our crockpots in the trash. Catharsis, according to Aristotle, was an intellectual exercise. It was supposed to bring clarity, a greater understanding of our humanity, not feelings for feeling sake. And, honestly, this all felt hollow and vapid and dare I say, cynical.
What are we clarifying then? If This Is Us is the zeitgeist of the Trump Era, what is that we’re projecting onto it?
Which leads me to Randall.
As of now, I am calling this show This Is Randall for this is the only part of the show that is worthy any of our time. Beth and Randall are also the only couple that can be declared as Not Boring.
Randall doesn’t avoid or wallow. He celebrates. He’s listening to the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and doing a dad dance. He’s fine. He’s cool. He’s prepping a Super Bowl party for his girls cause he is all about gender equality. It’s important to him that his daughters like this, for this is a family legacy. It was, after all, Jack’s favorite day.
Beth, bow down to the Queen, is not so confident about this whole approach. She realizes her husband is deflecting all those pesky feelings by being over-the-top joyful. She is saying things like “Oh, is third-person Randall coming the party today?” after her husband starts referring himself in said third-person. His daughters are not convinced either. They’re only interested in watching Justin Timberlake’s careers go up in flames. Same. They’re interested in that and in Mr. McGiggles, their new lizard. Unfortunately, amidst the reveling, the lizard runs away and in a series of mishaps, Beth ends up killing the poor thing by stepping on it. It’s exactly how I would want to go from this cruel, cruel world.
The Super Bowl Party has now turned into an impromptu funeral for Mr. McGiggles. As Randall is giving his eulogy, he starts getting flashbacks of his father’s death. The eulogy starts taking a turn for the weird as Randall begins talking about a bad tooth he once had and how it’s similar to an unexpected loss. Poor Randall begin to access that pain he has carefully kept away, on his quest to become the most perfect gentleman a person could ever be.
Beth cuts him off before he scares every single guest, but Randall notices that Tess runs upstairs.
Randall asks her what’s going on. For the past couple of days, Randall and Beth have been finding the landline off the hook. Tess admits to doing it. When asked why, she answers that it’s the line that social workers use to call them. Tess likes the idea of fostering kids but she’s afraid that Randall has been doing it to get a new life. She takes stock of what her dad has been up to lately. Randall has found a new father, a new job, and a new Deja all in a year. It’s a lot. Here is where Sterling K. Brown contacts the Emmy people and requests a shiny new statue for next year. Cause Randall responds in the tenderest way, by saying that Jack was the best dad and he was afraid he’d never be as good. Yet when Tess came along, he realized he didn’t even have to try to be a great dad because his love for her left him with no choice. Tess is his number 1.
As he’s talking, we see a little boy getting ready to meet his foster parents. And we assume that it’s a new foster kid for Randall and Beth. Instead, we soon realize that we’re actually seeing Adult Tess in action, as Old Randall says hello her. She has grown up to become a social worker. She is there in all her empathetic excellence. And now that the past has been revealed, we viewers are invited to step into a new timeline, the future.
From what I can see, the future is black and female. You can still steer us in the right direction, This Is Us. Hashtags be damned.
Reasons to Lust After Milo
The guy saved a dog from a fiery wreckage. Enough said.
Attempts at Emotional Manipulation
- All 60 minutes of it was a calculated, yet ultimately hollow, attempt to make you sob into a plate of empty chicken wings.
Deep Quote of the Week
“Loss is like a lightning bolt you can’t even see, reaching inside of you and tearing out your guts.” - Randall, to a room full of children. I like his style.