In 2016, This Is Us premiered on NBC. We didn’t know much about one of the season’s buzzier titles. The trailer teased a half-naked Milo Ventimiglia waiting for a pregnant Mandy Moore to dance for him, but that was pretty much it.
And then the series premiere aired.
An Unexpected Smash
With its open-hearted but thoughtful sentimentality, and its puzzle box approach to storytelling, This Is Us exploded out the gate. Critics and audiences adored the series, and Ventimiglia, Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, and Justin Hartley quickly climbed into the television A-List. This Is Us ended its first season as one of TV’s biggest new series and received multiple Emmy nominations, including Best Drama Series. (It lost the top prize to The Handmaid’s Tale, while Brown won Best Lead Actor.)
A high-concept broadcast series with broad appeal, excellent performances, and social media buzz, This Is Us seems like an easy bet for the Television Academy to shower with Emmys. And yet, it has come up short. Three of its four Emmys were for Best Guest Actor: one for Gerald McRaney and two for Ron Cephas Jones. Despite four Best Drama Series nominations, This Is Us has never won. (It lost twice to Game of Thrones and once to The Crown.)
This year is This Is Us’ last chance at the Emmys. While not the phenomenon it once was, the series is finishing up with its strongest writing and acting yet. The question is, will the Academy recognize it? The Emmys have a history of last-minute rewards. (Jon Hamm of Mad Men says hello.) Will This Is Us receive the same benefit, possibly with a Best Drama Series win?
A Brief State of the 2022 Emmy Race
Probably not. Awards pundits project a three-way horse between HBO’s Succession, Netflix’s global smash Squid Game, and Ozark, also in its final season. This Is Us would have to do something insane in its finale to pull focus, and the series isn’t about taking the biggest narrative swings. It thrives in the quieter moments that have endeared audiences to the Pearson family for years. Unfortunately, against more prominent and buzzier contenders, that probably won’t be enough.
However, there is a top-line Emmy category in which This Is Us could triumph. A win would honor the contender’s exemplary but oft-overlooked work over the last six seasons. The contender’s work this season would thoroughly deserve the award as well. Finally, it would reflect the series’ core tenets, solidifying it as one of the most successful broadcast programs of the decade.
That win is Mandy Moore for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
The Ghost of Jack Pearson
You could argue that Jack Pearson (Ventimiglia) was initially This Is Us’ breakout character. The Pearson held Jack up as a paragon of fatherly virtue, known for sweeping gestures and unconditional love. His faults – specifically his struggles with alcoholism and his abandonment of his younger brother – made him human and even more beloved. With Jack held to such high standards, Rebecca inevitably paled in comparison, unfair as it was. She could be overwrought, judgmental, and make huge, potentially devastating mistakes. (Rebecca’s choice to hide William’s existence from Randall had ramifications well into the final season.)
Rebecca may have had a rough go of it in the first half, but Moore’s performance was always compelling. She was the only principal player featured in every timeline. That required Moore to play Rebecca at no less than four different life stages, often in the same episode. She was thoroughly convincing, from a rebellious young woman to a grandmother grappling with her children’s crises. She modulated her performance carefully, holding Rebecca’s key traits while conveying how age re-shaped them. Like the series, Moore flourished in the quieter character moments, so much that underestimating her abilities was easy.
The series didn’t often call for big dramatic moments from Moore (that was primarily Brown’s well-deserved domain). When the time came, she delivered in spades. Rebecca’s reaction to Jack’s death – outright denial bleeding into emotional collapse – is one of the most devastating moments. (The scene, shockingly, didn’t garner her an Emmy nomination.) In the same season, present-day Rebecca breaks down during a family therapy session after Kevin accuses her of loving Randall the most. Her shocking exclamation that “[Randall] was just easier” was made even more potent by Moore’s visible discomfort with the rising tension in the room. Even in these Emmy reel-ready moments, Moore kept a firm grasp of Rebecca’s resilience and her fierce love of her children.
It Was Rebecca All Along
With Jack’s death resolved, the series’ second half dedicated itself to exploring Rebecca as she dealt with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. After years of being the Big Three’s closest protagonist, she became their greatest concern. Moore’s minor-key performance beautifully suited Rebecca’s new storyline. She amplified Rebecca’s fear, frustration, embarrassment, and fury with the same quiet grace notes that always defined her work. The series’ timeline jumps sealed Rebecca’s fate early on, but Moore still uncovered new moments to break our hearts and make us pray for a miracle.
This final season might be Moore’s finest hour on the series and perhaps her entire career. While Rebecca’s condition has deteriorated at a clip, Moore has kept the series grounded with steely resolve and patient compassion. She’s played more versions of Rebecca this season than ever before, and each one is fully realized. Even when Alzheimer’s leaves Rebecca nearly mute, Moore ensures that glimmers of the character audiences have come to love to breakthrough.
In the end, This Is Us reveals that the hero of its story – if there is one – isn’t the Herculean Jack Pearson. It is and has always been Rebecca Pearson. Jack may have been the impossible standard, but Rebecca was on the ground every day, keeping her family together through sheer force of will if need be. She wasn’t infallible, but she held on through unthinkable tragedies and miraculous triumphs. As Dr. K (McEnany) tells her in the penultimate, tear-jerking episode, Rebecca deserves the rest she ultimately gets with Jack. As well-written as Rebecca is, much of the character’s success lies with Mandy Moore and her understated, beautiful portrayal of her.
Why Should It Be Mandy?
You can make solid cases for other possible contenders in the Best Lead Actress category. Zendaya’s searing portrayal of a teen drug addict spiraling out of control is the highlight of Euphoria’s uneven second season. Critics are lauding Laura Linney’s performance in Ozark as the best in an already-sterling career. Melanie Lynskey will likely ride critical acclaim for her role in Yellowjackets to a nomination and a potential upset if the momentum from her Critics Choice Award holds.
However, I would implore Emmy voters to give Mandy Moore a serious look. She’s long overdue for recognition since the second season, at least. However, this wouldn’t be a “make-good” Emmy. (I largely dislike those types of wins.) Moore is in top form this season. The whole series’ emotional weight rests on her shoulders, and she carries it exceptionally.
On a higher level, honoring Moore with the Best Lead Actress Emmy would feel like a win for the whole series. This Is Us itself is long overdue to be recognized for thriving in an environment somewhat hostile to its existence. However, an overdue Best Drama Series win might do more harm than good. Instead, why not give the award to Moore, This Is Us’ beating heart?