Superheroes are everywhere. They’re leading our biggest blockbusters, starring in our grittiest television shows, and inspiring the throngs of Comic-Con. If you squint, there’s also a superhero hiding in plain sight in everyone’s favorite weepy network drama, and his name is Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia). The This Is Us patriarch has a multitude of superpowers (Saying the right thing faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful parenting than a locomotive! The ability to create supreme romantic gestures in a single bound!), a tragic, mysterious origin story, and an adoring, if tiny, public of his own, the denizens of the Pearson household. While Jack’s family members get annoyed with him, they still love the family man as the people of Metropolis continue to love Superman after he destroys half of downtown in an alien brawl. Because of this tendency, viewers are forced to look at the late, extremely great Jack with the same honey-dipped eyes.
But, in the terms of the This Is Us world, Jack is actually a real person with real flaws and real failures. Finally, after nearly 30 episodes, Us dealt with this fact during Tuesday night’s midseason premiere, “The Fifth Wheel.”
Our vehicle into the realities of Jack arrives by way of Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) and his-court-ordered rehab stint. During group therapy with his immediate family of mom Rebecca (Mandy Moore), sister Kate (Chrissy Metz), and brother Randall (Golden Globe winner Sterling K. Brown), Kevin announces all of his problems are their fault. The actor’s statement is melodramatic and evasive, but hides a nugget of truth amid all the “Poor me” sentimentality.
“We’re a family of addicts. Our father was an addict,” Kevin announces. “We don’t talk about his drinking problem.” This truth is never discussed among the remaining Pearson family members despite the massive effect it had on their past and their present. As we’ve seen over the course of Us, Rebecca’s dreams were dashed in a final way due to Jack’s drinking, and the couple's marriage hit a near-divorce level rough patch at least twice over the issue.
Season 2 has worked especially hard to show how teen Kevin (Logan Shroyer) acted out over his father’s addiction issues and the human weaknesses it revealed in Kevin's formerly untouchable hero. If Jack had lived past 1997, it’s likely he would have eventually had tough conversations with his kids about the dangers of alcoholism and what his disease could mean for them. This is especially likely for Kevin, since Jack, who also grew up with a father in the grips of alcoholism, seemed dedicated to ending the cycle of addiction generations of Pearson men tend to find themselves in.
But, Jack didn’t live past that fateful day in 1997, and that’s the problem here. While Kevin’s therapist Barbara (Kate Burton) usually behaves like a holier-than-thou jerk throughout the “Fifth Wheel” proceedings, she does finally ask Rebecca a necessary question. “Did you ever talk to your children about their father being an alcoholic? Did you ever warn them they would have the gene?” Barbara asks. This question works on two levels, by both interrogating Rebecca’s reaction to her husband’s abrupt death, and This Is Us’ subsequent tendency to canonize Jack.
Rebecca’s answer works on similar dual planes. She explains that because the Big Three lost their father at such a young age, and will never have another memory with him during a major milestone, she couldn’t tarnish Jack’s image with tough talks. “I did not sit them down and color their father by talking about the one part of him that wasn’t perfect,” she defends.
Yet, Jack wasn’t perfect. Those are the cold, hard facts, since he was a human person and not some Pittsburghian, mustachioed god. But, both Rebecca and This Is Us seem obsessed with proving Jack was a magical paragon of a man… if only it wasn’t for the drinking. Look at how Kate yells Jack “beat” alcoholism like it’s some Avengers villain and not a condition that actually colored every day of her father’s life. For once, it looks like the show sees the limitations of this kind of thinking.
This Is Us would feel far less Hallmark-y, perhaps the only knock against the NBC hit, if it recognized Jack was a great guy, even with his substance abuse problems; not “perfect,” merely wonderful. As Rebecca points out to a critical Barbara, “You do a great disservice by calling my husband an addict, because he was so much more than that.” That’s true. Defining a person by their disease is disrespectful and inappropriate and only adds to the stigma that keeps people from seeking treatment. Yet, the majority of the Pearsons are retroactively pulling a similar stunt. The family behaves as though Jack’s status as a late person with substance abuse issues bars anyone from ever talking about those substance abuse issues. In their own way, the family has let Jack’s alcoholism define him due to their desperate attempts to avoid it.
This stubbornly rose-colored way of looking at Jack has even extended to Rebecca’s second husband and Jack’s best friend, Miguel Rivas (Jon Huertas). Miguel knows everyone is constantly judging him for marrying his BFF’s widow, but he doesn’t care, because the Pearsons lost “the best man any of us will ever know.” That fact alone means it’s okay for the Big Three and their mom to ice out “outsiders” like Miguel and Pearson wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) whenever necessary. This speech sounds so over-the-top, lowly Pearson fiancé Toby Damon and Beth come to the conclusion Miguel must be drunker-than-drunk.
By extension, this is the closest This Is Us will ever come to recognizing its limitless reverence for Jack might be a little much. After all, an inebriated 50-something-year-old’s soused comments are nearly identical to a Jack Pearson characterization mission statement.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.
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