A review of tonight's This Is Us coming up just as soon as I'm a wise old owl in a Pixar movie…
This Is Us is the biggest new network hit of the fall (in the 18-49 demo, anyway; Bull and Designated Survivor have slightly larger audiences), showing that there's still an appetite for “soft” family dramas if the execution and the marketing are good enough. Creatively, though, the show is still uneven at this early stage, with each episode weaving back and forth between lovingly-crafted dramatic beats and ones that feel more hastily assembled.
Last week's episode, for instance, had great Randall stories in both past and present illustrating what it's been like for him to grow up black in a white world, as well as a beautiful final image of the Big Three napping on top of their father at the end of a long day by the pool, but the Kate and Kevin stories in the present were both cringe-worthy, and not necessarily in the way that was intended. In general, subplots about the two of them have been lagging behind what's happening with Randall's family, or in the flashbacks with Jack and Rebecca, because her stories are defined almost entirely by her weight, and his almost entirely by him being an obnoxious moron.
“The Game Plan” tried to address each issue, with mixed success. Kate gets a story not about her size at all (though there's still talk of low-calorie snacks and a session with the support group), but about her struggle to continue a ritual she had with Jack when he was alive(*), and which we learn over the course of the episode goes back to Jack's childhood, and even further back across the generations. It solidly tied her into what we saw Jack and Rebecca discussing in the '70s, and to the episode's larger themes about ritual and tradition, and it also effectively pointed out that Toby's penchant for grand gestures can be an enormous pain in the ass sometimes, particularly when he doesn't know the full story of things.
(*) That Kate has Jack's ashes on her mantle also confirms what was very strongly implied by Rebecca being married to Miguel in the present.
The Kevin story, though, continued to present him as an oblivious jackass until the already familiar last act turn where he gets to briefly be sensitive and eloquent as he tells his nieces his theory of life, the universe, and everything. It's a nice piece of writing, delivery by Justin Hartley, and editing between the past, present, and future timelines (the last one showing us Randall packing up the late William's belongings at some point down the road), but it played like a cheat, and not a logical extension of the guy we watched ruin everything in previous scenes, or in previous episodes. (It reminds me a bit of why I turned on Modern Family, where episodes would spend 20 minutes suggesting these people all despised each other, followed by false sentiment underlined with a profound Jay voiceover, followed by them going back to being awful the following week.) Obviously, if Kevin grows up all at once, the show needs a new central conflict for him, but right now it's too extreme – I spent large swaths of this episode wanting to yell at the screen when he was on it – and too contrived when he goes from one to the other.
Randall and Beth's pregnancy fears, meanwhile, neatly lined up with the conflict younger Jack and Rebecca were having on the night of the Steelers/Rams Super Bowl, and continued to allow Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson to move deftly between the lighter and heavier moments. Of all the show's character groupings, they're not only the best-written, but the most versatile for all of the different tones an episode might require in a given week.
The flashbacks themselves were also up-and-down. The opening montage taking us from Rebecca as a girl being ignored by her father during football to her as an even more devout Steeler fan (and Terry Bradshaw defender) than Jack was very well done, and Mandy Moore got to sing, and thus remind us that she was once a teen pop star. But even though Rebecca briefly pushes back against Jack's desire to have kids, she eventually falls in line, and it's becoming a pattern in the flashback stories that Jack not only always gets his way – making her a football fan (even if she volunteers to learn, she's doing it because of his obsession, rather than him learning about her stuff), convincing her to have kids when she's ambivalent about it, foisting the adoption of Randall on her when she's incredibly weak physically and emotionally from the birth and the loss of the third triplet – but is always right. (Even the story in episode 2 about how he's been drinking too much and staying out too late is really about Rebecca reminding him that when he's sober and focused, he's a superhuman parent.) Obviously, there are marriages where one partner tends to make more of the big decisions and/or tends to be the stronger parent or spouse, but This Is Us is trying to present Jack and Rebecca as equals, yet it keeps putting the thumb on the scale for him. Some of her concerns about the kids in this one addresses that, and maybe it will become more of an issue down the road, but I feel uncomfortable sometimes watching the flashbacks in ways that don't feel intended.
Still, when the show is good, it's very good, and I understand why it's caught hold the way it has.
What did everybody else think? How you feeling about This Is Us at this stage?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org