by Aprille Hanson-Spivey
1. Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore)
If you told me as a teenager that singer turned actor Mandy Moore would give one of the best performances to ever grace a TV screen, I wouldn’t have believed it. But Moore’s acting legacy is forever cemented in her portrayal as the Pearson family matriarch Rebecca. When the series began in 2016, it was heavily focused on her husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and his death (damn you crockpot!). And while you can argue the show was really about the kids, The Big Three, “This is Us” is really a story of growth and forgiveness, with Rebecca as a central focus. Her character was undoubtedly the most three-dimensional and ever-changing. Moore portrayed Rebecca as an aspiring singer; a sexy young wife; a grieving mother who didn’t have time to grieve in order to take care of her three newborns; selfless in adopting a third baby upon losing hers; selfish or protective (take your pick) in keeping Randall’s birth father William (Ron Cephas Jones) out of his life; a wife struggling to recognize her husband’s alcoholism; a young grieving widow who must move forward with her life for the sake of her children; an older woman finding love again; and a woman fading from Alzehiemer’s. There’s just not many people who could create poignant moments within each stage of a character’s life like that. My favorite moment from Rebecca will forever be a simple one: When she’s told that Jack has suffered a massive heart attack and died, she stares at the doctor and quickly takes a bite of the candy bar in her hand. It’s the most gut-wrenching, raw moment of real grief that will always make me teary-eyed. Make no mistake — Rebecca was the glue for “The Is Us.”
2. Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia)
Jack Pearson will forever be known as one of the best fathers in TV history. Milo Ventimiglia portrayed Jack in a way that balanced a man who could seemingly do no wrong, knew the perfect balance of compassion and love for those around him, but on the other side of the coin, a man with real life flaws that could easily hurt those very people he loved so deeply. I admired how the show never made Jack a caricature. Yes, he was willing to do whatever it took to make Rebecca and his family happy, creating a space of love and kindness that could make every female viewer swoon. And he did it all without having much – remember the carnival date with Rebecca and his lack of money? He knew on paper, he wasn’t “good enough” by society standards to be with her, but their love story was perfect. At every turn, he was a bit of a contradiction – Jack went to Vietnam essentially to protect his little brother Nicky, only to cut him out for the sins committed during the war; Jack despised his abusive father, helped his mother get out, only to not visit later in life like he said he would; He took on a job that was stifling to help his family, only to fall into alcoholism. The decisions, good and bad, made him real. He was heroic, even until the end, saving the family dog from the house fire, something that would ultimately kill him. It was one of the most tragic deaths in TV history, one that’s seared in my memory. For most of the series, viewers learned about Jack through the rose-colored glasses of a grieving family, making the flashbacks so vital to show that you can be an amazing, unworldly human being, while also battling demons. And if you ever had to wonder about Jack's ongoing legacy, Google the controversy Crockpot had to deal with after Jack’s death. He was and is the heart of “This Is Us.”
3. Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown)
Every “This Is Us” character had baggage. But Randall’s were the kind you’d have to pay obscene amounts to check at the airport. His entire life he felt incomplete in this very loving family as the one abandoned at the fire station and adopted by the Pearson’s only because of the loss of their third child when Rebecca gave birth. And while the love there was so strong, his identity as a Black child and then man amid the backdrop of a happy white family who really did not give him the strong Black role models he needed growing up impacted his entire identity. Yes, he was loved, but one of the most heartbreaking things addressed in the show was the unintentional racism he experienced from Kevin and really the whole family in trying to ignore his Blackness, to the point he daydreamed about being in an imaginary Black family. It no doubt contributed to his intense bouts of anxiety and desire to overachieve. It’s also what made his close relationship with Rebecca such an added tragedy when she later admitted she knew his birth father and he was alive. It was the kind of betrayal that got more intense as the show included episode after episode showing Randall’s identity struggles. But his relationship with William and essentially the ghost of his mother, made for some of the best moments of the show. Not to mention his Jack-esque way of protecting his family, whether it was his love story with Beth, adopting Deja or his quest to do anything to slow the march of Alzheimer’s disease plaguing Rebecca. Even though Randall was always closest to Rebecca, he was overall more Jack-like than any character.
4. Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson)
In the hands of another actress, the character of Beth may not have ranked so high on my list. But man, for someone who was not an original Pearson, ultimately the outsider looking in with the rest of the spouses, Beth was the most versatile character on the show. Susan Kelechi Watson played Beth with such depth that allowed her to be a constant support and love to Randall, but not in a way that sacrificed her own strong nature, or in a way that babied him. She masterfully balanced, and often pointed out, the total craziness that is the Pearson clan, something that made for some of the best comedic moments. She was often the voice of reason and comic relief, in a sea of serious situations. And between the biting way she delivered lines to her facial expressions, she constantly had me laughing out loud. Like when William, Randall’s biological father came to live with them, saying, “How long is your crack-addict biological daddy gonna be sleeping in our 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom?” She wound up having a beautiful relationship with William, one made all the more poignant by her origin story starting with the episode “Our Little Island Girl” in season 3, and how close she was to her father who had died before she met Randall. Her strength was unapologetic and the show needed her. But for as much as she made me laugh with her witty doses of reality for Randall and forming a bond with non-Pearson’s of her own with Toby and Miguel, there were times her character touched my soul so deeply. Most notably, her goodbye to a dying Rebecca, saying, “Thank you for helping me with that complicated, incredible, beautiful boy that you raised. But I got him now.” Even reading that quote has me tearing up. It was not only one of the best lines for Beth, but one of the best in the show.
5. Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley)
Oof, Kevin Pearson was a lot. Whether he was picking on Randall as a child, drinking too much as a teeanger, cheating on his childhood sweetheart-turned-wife Sophie, complaining about his acting career, breezing through women trying desperately to find “the one,” picking on Randall AGAIN as an adult, driving drunk with Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) daughters in the car, having a one-night stand with Kate’s best friend and getting her pregnant, always at it with Toby (Chris Sullivan), etc. But despite all the bad, Justin Hartley portrayed Kevin in a way that never let me give up on him. On paper, his unlikability list is endless, but every time he’d hit a good milestone, it’d be a triumph for everyone watching, from his role as a father and co-parent with Madison, saving his Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) and changing the lives of countless veterans, his friendship with Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison), saving that one random guy from a burning car, his bond with Kate (Chrissy Metz) and eventually realizing that bond with Randall, finally getting it right with Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) and his best role – caregiver to his mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in her last years of life. Without a doubt, Kevin experienced the most mature growth in a series of characters constantly evolving, so while he’s middle of the pack overall, he earned his spot.
6. Toby Damon (Chris Sullivan)
I loved Toby. I loved everything about him from the moment he made Kate laugh in the food-disorder support group they were in and all the subsequent moments he filled a hole in Kate’s life, showing her what it meant to be truly loved. While viewers soon learned about Toby’s struggles with depression, we never truly got an origin story for him. It could have been a purposeful decision by the writers, given how Katoby would one day fall apart. I don’t think there was a joke Chris Sullivan delivered as Toby that didn’t have me in stitches, from his absurdity with “Dessert is my life’s work” to his sweetness in “I’d marry the hell out of you, Kate Pearson.” Getting healthy mentally and physically is not something that should make a spouse sad, but Kate felt a shift when Toby lost the weight and seemed to change in general. Viewers felt it too. It’s why Toby’s line of “You fell in love with a coping mechanism” was such a gut-punch. And while Toby and Kate did eventually divorce, I was so happy as a fan that the humor wasn’t just wrapped up in the depression. Had the show made him a serious curmudgeon, it would have been a wrong turn. But only Toby could make me laugh in the penultimate episode saying goodbye to a dying Rebecca when he tells her she can be honest – she likes him more than Phillip (Kate’s new husband). It was so true to his character and in a heavy show like “This Is Us” Toby was the character to make you smile.
7. Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz)
As Kevin’s twin, it’s understandable that Kate (Chrissy Metz) also might be a lot, at least at various times throughout the series. Her character may be far down the list in terms of where she ranks overall, but her role was an important one. While Jack’s death took a piece of each of the Pearson kid’s hearts, Kate undoubtedly had the biggest chunk ripped away. Watching her watch her dad, her hero, as a child and the complicated relationship with her mother only made the devastation more palpable when he died. It scarred her mental health, her physical health and emotional health whether it was trying to build up her self-esteem, struggling continuously with her weight and forming healthy bonds with not only men but those around her. Not to mention her dream of being a singer in life completely dashed. But Metz’s greatest portrayal was Kate’s love story with Toby. We lovingly watched Katoby laugh together, get through a scary pregnancy and adoption, navigate parenting a blind child and then we watched them crash and burn over time. But as the series went on, even in that dark moment, Kate’s strength and maturity flourished. Their “love story” never ended, she found love again and wound up being the most trusted of The Big Three in the end for Rebecca. She was flawed, messy and amazing.
8. Miguel Rivas (Jon Huertas)
Poor Miguel. How do you compete with Jack Pearson? Hell, even Toby couldn’t compete with the memory of him. And while it’s sad that even in this list he ranks at the bottom, it’s not like his character wasn’t vital. It didn’t really sink in until the final season, particularly with one of the best episodes of the series titled “Miguel,” how much he loved Rebecca, sacrificed for her and put up with more than enough bullshit from not only his own family, but The Big Three. No, Miguel was not the fairytale love story in Rebecca’s life, but he was the love story she needed more than ever when Jack died. Not only for the companionship, but the quiet resilience for him to take on caregiver responsibilities later in their marriage. Jon Huertas played Miguel with a strength that really outmatched many of the other characters on the show. His friendship with Toby (Chris Sullivan) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) was gold, and just a funny, but kind of stinging reality that yes, they were a part of the family, but they’d never be truly in that special Pearson club. But all that mattered to Miguel was his love for Rebecca, and that’s admirable.
What's your ranking?