By Peter Hummers on August 11, 2022
The longest train I ever saw was on that Georgia Line
The engine passed at six o’clock, and the cab went by at nine.
NBC’s This Is Us, which has wrapped up after 106 episodes, opens on an August 31st. Rebecca goes into early labor on Jack’s 36th birthday and he gets her to the hospital, where she loses one of her triplets, and an abandoned infant is brought to the hospital by a fireman. Her doctor tells the couple “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and Jack and Rebecca make arrangements to adopt the firehouse baby.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Kate looks at a sheet cake in her refrigerator, which reads “36 is just a number. Happy Birthday, Kate!” A sticky note on the plate reads, “Do not dare eat this cake before your party, Kate. Love, Kate.” She is very overweight.
In his New York City Wall Street office, Randall, a very well-put-together black executive, opens an email on his birthday that reads, “FOUND HIM!”
And in Hollywood, blockbuster sitcom star Kevin drinks alone in his bedroom as his sister presides over his lavish birthday party. Fed up with his witless show The Manny, he had blown up his career with an outburst on set before a live audience.
Kate (yes, that Kate), who is Kevin’s sister and assistant, reminds him of the advice their dad used to give them while growing up. Something involving a sour lemon and lemonade. Back at the hospital, the firefighter who brought Randall (that’s right) in offers Jack a cigarette and the camera pans out to reveal everyone is dressed in late-1970s fashions. The only spoiler that I’ll reveal is that we’ve been jumping back and forth between two timelines! (And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!) Kevin, Kate, and Randall are living in the present day. When they were born 36 years ago, they became Jack and Rebecca’s “Big Three.”*
We the audience get a taste of how the Tralfamadorean aliens from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who see in four dimensions, feel.
This Is Us recently aired its final season, and as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia noted, it’s been a long, strange trip, the saga of Jack and Rebecca Pearson and their three children, Kate, Randall and Kevin, all of whom share a birthday with Jack, told from a floating place in time, from 1948 until 2048 or so. We spend most of our time in 2016, “the present,” but are taken to the past and the future regularly, in person or in stories. (A sharp viewer will note hairstyles, facial hair and fashions for clues as to where we are, as it’s not always spelled out.) Exceptionally detailed, it’s a family biography that spills over to include the biographies, in varying degrees, of the important people in their lives, people they find, meet, date, marry, give birth to, and lose, over a span of one hundred years.
The cast comprises 859 actors; 27 portray Kevin at different ages, 21 portray Kate, 16 portray Randall, 3 play Jack, and 3 play Rebecca. But there are 11 more major characters across dozens of timelines, multiplied by dozens of secondary and tertiary characters who enter and leave the show just like people enter and leave our lives. (Dozens times dozens would add up to several gross of stories.)
As an NBC production This Is Us stands out from today’s boutique cable series and miniseries as an example of big Hollywood getting it right. In many ways an extended soap opera, it features acting worthy of a soap, that is, excellent. Soap opera actors have to turn out one hour every day of seamless acting, and these people inhabit those characters for at least 3 times as long, what with table reads of the scripts and rehearsals. Back in the day soap operas were broadcast live, so throw in stage experience to the list of talents required. This Is Us’ intricate scripts are full of callbacks, foreshadowings and clues (remember, this series is also about the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory, how every choice we make, no matter how small, has consequences that shape the future).
Next week we’ll meet the major characters of this ambitious and audacious series.
* I have seen every episode, but my memory being what it is, many details of my reconstruction of the characters and situations involved were taken from Fandom.com’s This Is Us Fan Wiki and Vulture.com’s “Everything That Happened on This Is Us in Chronological Order.”
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)