Warning, some spoilers ahead!
Generally, I don’t think AiPT! would cover a show like This is Us. It’s a network TV, character-driven family drama that causes this reviewer to not-infrequently tear up, sometimes even full-out cry. It lacks the gritty seediness of The Deuce, is way more wholesome than Vice Principals, and its only special effects are pointed looks or heartfelt monologues that just freakin’ hit you. I know a lot has been said about this award-winning, critical and viewer darling that is NBC’s most successful new drama in a long time, but this show deserves all the attention it can get. The premiere this week is a strong reminder why.The episode followed a familiar pattern established in Season 1: focus two of the plot threads on the three siblings in 2017, and mirror some of those points with a thread set in the past, in this case the 90s. In 2017, things picks up a few months after the end of the last season. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is jazzed about his baby-adoption epiphany last season, but his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) isn’t as on board. Twins Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Kate’s fiancee Toby (Chris Sullivan), are back in LA. Kevin is acting again and Kate is fighting her self-doubt auditioning as a singer. The 90s storyline is a bit less linear, since it fills in and contrasts with the current day plot, but focuses on Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in the aftermath of their big fight last season that focused on Rebecca’s career.
I know none of that sounds riveting. It might not even make any sense if you haven’t seen Season 1 (which you definitely should). On paper, it sounds like standard family drama, with a “clever” flashback device. That’s partially true, but that’s what makes the show so watchable. The characters aren’t dealing with life-or-death decisions, they’re not stabbing each other in the back or even fighting because of some contrived misunderstanding. They are dealing with real-life-ish problems. Obviously not everyone is like Randall, a man shaped by his adopted and biological fathers, both of whom are deceased. What’s universal is his conflict with Beth: can, and should, he bulldoze her into feeling the same way he does? I think anyone in a partnership, particularly a marriage, can relate to that conflict. Then there’s Kate, who is trying to build her self confidence, a storyline that meandered in the first season, only to have two men she cares about trying to support her in ways she doesn’t need or want. Her moment, when she tells Kevin and Toby off, is a victory for the character, but it’s hard not to question how you support others in your own relationships.
Even the flashbacks, which can sometimes be a convenient and heavy-handed device, work in this ep. The best ones in the series show events from a different perspective. We get one of those this episode. In it, we briefly revisit the big blowout Rebecca-Jack fight from last season, but from teenaged Randall’s perspective. He doesn’t hear everything, and doesn’t stay long enough to be noticed, but what he sees is a perfect marriage at a moment of imperfection. It’s a really real moment in the show, one that many people have growing up, when the illusion of parenthood and adulthood is dropped and you see your parents as the flawed people they are. It was a very short scene, and it not only connects well with the audience, but informs adult Randall’s change of heart shortly after in the present day.
Of course, none of this would be possible without some really stellar acting. Across the board, the actors fire on all cylinders. Sterling K. Brown still steals the show, really selling Randall’s passion and drive, not to mention his fantastic chemistry with Susan Kelechi Watson. When tensions flare and they fake-smoke cigarettes to cool down, it’s just a great, quirky husband/wife moment. For another touch of realism, they avoid having a big fight in a parking lot, something that I think other shows might gone for.For me, the other big acting note was another moment from the flashback storyline. After a tumultuous day separated to deal with their messy feelings, Rebecca confronted Jack. Mandy Moore got a lot of heat last season for being unlikeable (not sure why…), so I was glad to see her get a meaty, heartfelt, sappy monologue trying to convince — bulldoze even? — Jack into come home and work through his alcoholism together. It was a strong, heartfelt performance, and Jack turning her down at first was a nice fake-out. The conflict resolved in perhaps a slightly typical way, but the big tease about Jack’s death, an event that has been hinted at and foreshadowed since Season 1, made the moment even more bittersweet.
Maybe I like occasionally tearing up, and sure, sometimes a few of those tears get loose and roll down my cheek. So what. This is Us doesn’t need spaceships or sleezeballs or crude humor to be great (not that any of those things are bad). Instead, it has a talented team of writers and actors that can balance juicy, melodramatic monologues with intimate character moments to deliver the small dramas of everyday life. If you ask me, that’s pretty damn special.