A few thoughts on tonight's This Is Us – the first new show of the fall to get a full season order (albeit to 18 episodes) – coming up just as soon as my vice is asthma and yours is cocaine…
As I said last week, a lot of the power of the This Is Us premiere came from the twist at the end, though it's the rare twisty drama pilot that played more effectively for me on second viewing than first. As a result, I really wanted to see some additional episodes to get a sense not only of how the show intended to function on a weekly basis, but whether the emotions would still be there once I knew going in what all the relationships were.
Fortunately, both “The Big Three” and next week's episode(*) suggest not only a sturdy framework for a family drama, but satisfyingly hit various emotional beats without relying too much on twists.
(*) The only thing I'll say about that now is that the Jack/Rebecca scenes take place in an earlier time period than the ones tonight, which suggests the show intends to bounce around through the kids' childhoods to find stories in the past that have thematic resonance with the ones in the presence. (The Lost model, basically.) That's a smarter approach than going in strict chronological order in both time periods, which we've seen shows like Arrow struggle to do.
There is, of course, a twist at the end of “The Big Three,” as Rebecca appears in the present, now married to Jack's best friend Miguel, whom Randall's kids know only as “grandpa,” suggesting Jack isn't alive in 2016. But that was already somewhat implied in the pilot – Kate and Kevin's relationship is that of siblings who have had to lean on each other more than parents for a long time – and the original version of the pilot had Randall explicitly tell William that his adoptive father had died. (This doesn't mean that This Is Us is bound by that – the original Jane the Virgin pilot implied that Michael was shady, but by the time it got to air he was a saint – but it certainly fits what we've seen so far.) But the episode doesn't lean on that development – telegraphed through all of Miguel's mid-80s praise of Rebecca – for its big emotions, instead focusing on the relationships between the siblings in both the present and past.
The climax of the pilot flashbacks suggest everything will be hunky-dory with Jack's plan to have Randall take the place of the non-surviving triplet, but we see here that of course things are more complicated than that. The other kids at school mockingly call Randall “Webster” (a slightly more current reference for the period than if they were going with Arnold from Diff'rent Strokes), and the needy and attention-starved Kevin is frustrated that he is constantly being asked about why his brother looks different. In the present, we see that while the brothers aren't estranged, it's also never been the warmest of relationships, even if the saintly Randall keeps holding out hope that Kevin will get it together already. (The look on Sterling K. Brown's face as Randall leads his siblings in the mantra Jack taught them as kids was just beautiful.)
In past and present, we get to see other cracks in the family facade as well. Jack is the guy who gives the big inspirational speeches, but also the one who drinks too much and puts too much of the burden on Rebecca, while there's constant tension between Kate and Rebecca over the former's weight, which is only complicated by the fact that her mom is built like Mandy Moore. (Kate's discussion with Toby about how everything in her life is always defined in some way by her size played almost like a retort by Fogelman and company to critics like me who wished the show wasn't emphasizing that aspect of her so much.)
And where some of The Manny behind-the-scenes material in the pilot felt smug and self-congratulatory, Katey Sagal and Brad Garrett did excellent work this week as, respectively, Kevin's agent and the head of the network, both seeming very human – and in many ways more sympathetic than Kevin – even as they were telling him he had to stick with this job. This is among the more understated performances I've seen from Garrett, and while I don't expect to see him much, if at all, in the future of this show, it speaks well that for two weeks in a row, the show has been able to create and cast guest characters who pop so well even in the midst of all that's happening with the regulars (including Beth's understandable misgivings about letting William live with them).
All in all, a promising next step. Second episodes are tough, particularly after pilots that rely heavily on a surprise of some kind, but this one worked. I'll try to check back in after a few more episodes have aired, but I'm in for a while.
What did everybody else think?