How Much Does ‘This Is Us’ Want Us To Celebrate The Family’s Traditions?

A review of tonight’s This Is Us coming up just as soon as we watch Police Academy 3 on VHS…

This Is Us isn’t exactly Parenthood, but it’s filled that particular emotional place in my viewing schedule, offering laughs and warmth in an extended family setting, and inviting me to question the characters’ motives and methods at least as often as I question the decisions the creative team makes.

With Parenthood, you on some level had to be inherently pro-Braverman, and it could lead to emotional and cognitive dissonance when a story presented one of the core four siblings as being wonderful and correct when they were clearly being an idiot. Eight episodes into the young life of This Is Us, I can’t tell yet exactly how much belief we’re meant to invest in the particular traditions of the Pearson clan, and how much we’re meant to question them, and an episode like “Pilgrim Rick” doesn’t offer definitive evidence one way or the other.

In general, for instance, the show has treated the sober and engaged version of Jack as the Greatest Dad Ever, and we’ve seen previous evidence of just how desperate his kids are to cling to his memory, in stories like Kate watching football with his ashes. Here, we see that level of Jack worship amplified even more, as we learn that Randall each year recreates every detail of their ill-fated childhood Thanksgiving road trip down to the silliest detail. Obviously, every family has traditions and rituals that they repeat year after year, generation after generation, and the show has already established that Randall is both an obsessive in general and — because of how he came into the family in the first place — someone particularly fixated on maintaining connections to his past. But there are times in “Pilgrim Rick” where Randall’s insistence on doing everything exactly like it was on that day in the ’80s is being played for laughs when it feels really unsettling.

But then, maybe it’s meant to. After all, much of “Pilgrim Rick” is setting up Randall for the very big emotional hit he takes upon discovering that Rebecca always knew about William and prevented them from meeting for 36 years. For that to hurt as much as it does, it has to be preceded by a reminder of just how much Randall worships at the altar of how his adoptive parents raised him, down to treating that day at the Pinewood Lodge as something to be ritually copied year after year like he’s a Jewish person who has to eat matzoh on Passover because of something that happened thousands of years in the past. So if Randall’s fixation with Paul Simon’s Graceland, the 3.4 mile hike, and the rest of the day come across as unhealthy at times, that may not be an accident.

By putting the bulk of the cast together for the holiday, and by tying the flashback more closely to the present-day story than any previous episode had, “Pilgrim Rick” felt more unified and less uneven than the series usually has been to date, and everyone got a strong moment at one point or another, whether it was Kate breaking up with Toby because even their relationship hasn’t made her happy(*), or William’s speech to Olivia about what it feels like to be dying (those poetic monologues are often This Is Us at its best), or, of course, the mix of sadness and white-hot rage on Randall’s face when he calls out Rebecca on all that she unilaterally deprived him of.

(*) Speaking of intention versus perception, the show generally treats Toby as an awesome guy who — as Kate notes in her break-up speech — channels, and even amplifies, many of the best traits of the men in romantic comedies, but I know several viewers (most of them women, in fact) who find all of his big romantic displays to be exhausting, and even bordering on narcissistic. With a show like this, everyone will view the characters through a different lens, and not all the images will come out for everyone the way the creative team expected. But you can also understand why Kate would be drawn to the guy, since Toby’s grand gestures are very reminiscent of how Jack is with the kids.

Holidays like Thanksgiving are a big deal for families, and thus a big deal for a family drama like This Is Us, and the show delivered this time out.

What did everybody else think?