‘This Is Us’ Opens Its Final Season With Big Changes for the Pearson Family

The sixth and final season of NBC’s “This Is Us” opens with a premiere that somehow encapsulates all that is wholesome and endearing about this show. Unashamed of being a pure tear-jerker, showrunner Dan Fogelman’s smash hit has a comforting tone that still leaves room for heartbreak. Traversing timelines and playing around with our deepest ponderings of how our parents dealt with life in their younger years, Fogelman crafted something easily addictive. It also kept up with the times. Last season the Pearsons endured the pandemic and social distancing. Now, as this series winds down, season six opens with a different kind of rhythm that’s more about closure than big revelations.

With a title like “The Challenger,” those with long memories can guess what national tragedy will define the season premiere. It opens on Jan. 28, 1986. Happily married Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) laugh and swoon to REO Speedwagon while Kate, Randall and Kevin prepare to go to school and watch the Challenger space shuttle launch. In the present, Kate (Chrissy Metz), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) are preparing to celebrate their 41st birthdays. To give Kate a day to enjoy, Rebecca takes her children out but is also grappling with the constant, emerging signs of Alzheimer’s. Randall receives an email informing him that the intruder who burglarized his home two seasons ago has been captured and Randall feels he should attend the arraignment. Kevin is living in the garage of ex-girlfriend and co-parent Madison (Caitlin Thompson), doing what he can to help raise their twins. It gets tricky considering he still has emotional attachment while Madison is fine being two adults with their own lives. Going back to 1986, we see how Jack and Rebecca dealt with the aftermath of the kids watching the Challenger explosion live on TV at school, sitting them down for a talk about life and death.

While Fogelman never altered or made any wild changes to the style of the show, “This Is Us” has featured major developments in the narrative, but always convincingly. It has something in common with other recent shows that have tried to build their stories on more down to earth narratives. As the title suggests, this has also been a work of fictional biography. Yet it has always remained real life filtered through a hyper dramatic lens that services its fans like sweet candy. There is no cynicism in “This Is Us,” which is why it’s so hard to resist. Randall decides he must go see the burglar arraigned and when he faces the destitute man, named David Watkins, he as a councilman does the right thing and seeks help for the burglar. Watkins kept a wedding photo belonging to Randall, yet all the fear Randall has felt since the break in seems to dissipate when he realizes how sad this man is. Not even Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) offering to be his birthday genie can dissuade Randall from doing good deeds. Can we really argue against the show’s ethos? Wouldn’t the world be a little better if we all showed such compassion or empathy?

The character who is meant to be the flashier sibling is also the one with the simpler, yet emotionally complex situation. Kevin is facing being a father while attempting to maintain a healthy, platonic relationship with Madison. He also gets offered a role in a reboot of the sitcom that made him famous, but not as the lead because he’s now considered too old for the original part. Sure, it’s almost a caricature of the struggling artist to have Kevin at 41 still living in garages, letting out his angst in an apparent threesome at the beginning of the episode, but his dilemmas never feel trite. When Madison hosts a book club and Kevin notices one of the members, a guy named Elijah, is obviously getting close with her, he avoids any soapy theatrics and wisely decides he should move out. Transitional moments in life can come in barrages with difficult work choices and personal relationships shifting. 

There is also sadness in “This Is Us” and “The Challenger” has quite a bit of despair and ache. Rebecca struggles to remember a train ride she once took with her father. The culmination of the memory, when he walked with her to another train car, is slowly becoming a hazier memory that’s harder to crystalize. A fear builds for us, as viewers who have followed this character for years, over whether all her wonderful memories with Jack and the children will simply vanish. Later, while zooming with everyone for the triple 41st birthday celebration, she has to tell everyone recent brain scans show her condition is advancing.  In the 1986 segments Rebecca and Jack have one of their sweeter storylines as they attempt to explain to the kids what they unexpectedly watched. Alone in bed, Rebecca confides to Jack she doesn’t want this to affect Kevin, who seems the most closed off from discussing the tragedy, and render him a fearful person for life. Did such conversations and worries shadow over families back in 1986 when the Challenger exploded? Maybe, and as network TV it’s a heartfelt use of a historical event. Kevin and Kate as children later sit in bed, pondering how their parents will one day also die. In the present moments, Kevin does bring up the Challenger memory at one point, as if it was an early reminder that things can change suddenly and sadly.

In the Peak TV era, “This Is Us” effectively carried a torch for a more traditional kind of television that still retains its allure. It isn’t a high-end production always trying to look like a movie. Fogelman was just making good TV that seeks to make us cry a little. Even when the characters engage in grand speeches about feeling the urge to do good or confess their romantic feelings with sincerity that would be embarrassing on Showtime, we respond to it because as humans we are creatures of feelings. “The Challenger” announces that the final season of this hit knows exactly how to close it all down. Through the present and the past, the Pearsons will make us laugh, cry and hope for one more round.

This Is Us” season six premieres Jan. 4 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.