Critic's Notebook: 'This Is Us' Closes Season 1 on a Sour Note

Who cares how Jack died? With a hackneyed crime subplot and much of the ensemble sitting on the bench, NBC's hit freshman drama closed its season with a dud.
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
'This Is Us'
[This article contains spoilers for the March 14 finale of This Is Us and, of course, everything that led up to it.]
I wonder if This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman or anybody at NBC looked at the arc of the wildly popular drama's first season and hesitated.

Presumably everybody was confident that the season's 16th and 17th episodes worked.

"Memphis" was a sad, beautifully told culmination to the story of Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) reconnection with the father (Ron Cephas Jones' William) who left him in front of a firehouse decades earlier. "Memphis" was emotionally manipulative right up to the breaking point, but it was held together by the indie grit contributed by directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. It was a rich two-character portrait, with both Brown and Jones delivering nary a false note, and it had a rich sense of place and family history, looking back at Williams' youth as well. 

Airing the next week, "What Now?" could also have been called "Yeah, We're Milking It," as the hour tried to double or triple down on the tear-jerking of the previous episode. But it earned a lot of that emotion thanks to Brown's greatness, and also the work by Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley and especially Susan Kelechi Watson, who has been one of the show's stealth MVPs all season. The last five minutes of the episode fell apart for me, with the silly Ron Howard cameo and the mawkish foreboding hints about Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) long-teased death, but everything that came before was well-played.
I wonder if there was any consideration given to wrapping the season after one of those two episodes. 
"Memphis" would have been an artistic high point and it would have left potential Emmy voters with Brown and Jones' work on their minds. It wouldn't have wrapped most of the season's arcs, but one could have argued that it resolved the biggest twist introduced in the pilot, so it could work as a viable pausing point.
"What Now?" would have felt much more finale-ish. Everybody celebrated William's memory. Randall left the job he hated. Kevin had a Broadway triumph and got the chance phone call from an Oscar-winning director. I'm sure something happened with Kate and Toby (Chris Sullivan), too, though I tune out anything related to Toby. So we got all of those semi-cliffhangers and we were left with a more ghoulish cliffhanger about Jack's death, but if that's what this show wants to do — have viewers desperately trying to solve the mystery of how the main characters' dad died even though they all know how he died so it's just a twist that's only being withheld from us — then so be it. [More on that in a bit.] It would have been a fine season finale.
Tuesday's (March 14) actual This Is Us season finale was not a fine season finale. You can call it "disappointing" or "unsatisfying" or "a let-down" if you want, but I'm just going to call it bad, a self-indulgent hour of television that succeeded in none of the ways the show at its best has succeeded. I'm afraid I don't have to think very hard for the last time an NBC drama squandered the momentum of a promising first season on a total dud of a finale. I don't think "Moonshadow" was quite the disaster of that first Heroes finale, but it was close.
Legitimately, the only more misguided finale I can personally imagine would have been if This Is Us had gone and dedicated an entire episode to Toby, who is and always has been the worst, at least since he made Kate's football-watching ritual all about himself, just like he made everything all about himself all season long. Toby didn't have more than two lines of dialogue in the finale, mind you, and if you'd told me that in advance, I'd probably have taken it as a great sign. The finale even ruined the absence of Toby.
All season long, the thing I found most interesting about This Is Us was how it forced me, on a weekly basis, to readjust my perceptions of what was working and what wasn't working. One week I might think I was sick of Kate, but then the next I'd remember how good Metz was and I'd recognize that I was mostly sick of Toby and sick of the writers not giving her storylines unrelated to her weight. One week I'd be tired of Kevin as a mistake-prone lunkhead, but then the next week they'd land a beat of redemption and I'd be fine with Kevin again. Randall and Beth were basically the anti-Toby/Miguel in that I was always happy to see them. I also pretty consistently dug Jack and Rebecca, though her "I wanna be a singer!" aspirations felt more like trying to maximize use of Mandy Moore than good writing. 
Leaving aside the frustration of a finale that was mostly Sterling K. Brown-free, Tuesday's finale confirmed for me that you can't give me a Jack/Rebecca episode that's both without the kids and without Gerald McRaney's Dr. K. [A quick note on McRaney's performance as Dr. K: It's the kind of work that demands Emmy attention. He was in only a few episodes and each time he appeared, he elevated the entire show around him. I think The Crown screwed up Jared Harris' Emmy hopes by putting him in five episodes and making him only eligible for supporting actor, but McRaney ought to benefit.]
For 45 minutes, Fogelman and co-writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger decided that, despite having never been such a thing before, This Is Us was going to be a bad Arthur Miller play about blue-collar dreams, thwarted ambitions and the least convincing criminal element ever put on tape. Jack deciding to pin his future on an underground card game spoke to nothing hinted at before in the show and also nothing the writers or director Ken Olin had ever seen before, apparently. No second of that misadventure read as authentic, from Jack winning all the money he needed on the first hand he played — four queens over a full house! — beating the game's shady organizer, then trying to walk away immediately, then getting jumped in the alley and robbed. It was shoddy card play, flimsy character work and weak drama.
And then as awful as that was, Jack and Daryl, whoever Daryl was, deciding to rob an old bartender because Jack was tired of being a nice guy and decided that the only way to escape his father was to become his father was, again, worse. It's possible that the writers put Jack in those two cliched situations to illustrate how out-of-character those schemes were for Jack, but I'm not buying they made half of this episode bad on purpose.
Just as I can pretend that the Jack poker/robbery stuff was meant to show how lost he was, I can buy that Jack punching Rebecca's bandmate and Rebecca having to miss her dream gig was aiming to be nightmarish and not realistic. It just wasn't good.
If every point of escalation in an episode is generating unintentional credulity-straining guffaws, I'm afraid that you then can't stage a climactic confrontation and expect me to buy it. Unlike the rest of the episode, I give Ventimiglia and Moore an "A" for effort in their big fight scene, which included an uninterrupted two-plus minute shot of the two actors shouting at each other. The grade for execution would be far lower. They're both good actors who have shined in very emotional material this season, but they suddenly went from exhausted mid-'90s parents in a comfortable Pittsburgh home to new immigrants in a Brooklyn tenement bellowing about union intrigue, almost adopting dock worker accents by the end. It's important, if you're a show like this, to find your actors' limitations. To paraphrase the show's title: These were them. 
And please don't get me started on the fakeout with the two dates. We've seen too much of Fogelman's sense of twistiness this year between This Is Us and Pitch, so I knew that we were being tricked into thinking Jack and Rebecca's blind dates were with each other. It wasn't a surprise when Ethan turned out to be Rebecca's date and Jack's standing up his date just makes him look like an ass, which is the last thing that character needed in an episode that decided to turn him into a petty hoodlum. Oh and if you're going to have Rebecca's beauty and voice save Jack from a life of crime, don't drown out her singing with the blaring score. That would be the perfect time, in fact, to just do vocals-only audio, which is the kind of thing you can do if you have Mandy Moore.
The finale flopped for me even though I had no expectations or needs from it at all. This isn't like Heroes promising the saving a cheerleader and the saving the world, but then delivering poorly. 
I know the talk leading up to the finale was "excitement" about finding out about Jack's death, but that always felt gross to me. From the start, the show has fallen into the trap of being too cute with Jack's death, which was revealed in the initial pilot, but then got trimmed out. If Kevin, Kate and Randall have questions about Jack's death, we haven't heard them. The only character who doesn't know how Jack died, at least so far as I know, is Toby and Toby shouldn't count. Why would you want this show, about family relationships and lessons and growth, to be interpreted as a guessing game about a character's death? Why is that the level on which Dan Fogelman has chosen to engage viewers? 
Yes, it would have increased the time between seasons, but NBC could have elected to end This Is Us with "Memphis" or "What Now?" and had a bonus episode or two rolled over for next year. Leave audiences sobbing with Randall or pondering the various characters' life changes for a few months. "Moonshadow" would have been an annoying season premiere as well, but another episode would have come the next week and I bet the next episode will be better. It would almost have to be, since This Is Us instead closed a pretty good — I'd have said "good" yesterday, but it's already dwindling for me — 18-episode season with its worst episode and the whole show is going to sit poorly in my mind until September as a result.