A few thoughts on last night’s This Is Us premiere coming up just as soon as Ron Howard gives me a cake with my face on it…
Well, at least we know Jack died in a fire.
Okay, probably not.
At the TV critics summer press tour, I asked Dan Fogelman if he ever worried that the show’s mysteries — and particularly the matter of when and how Jack died — would wind up undercutting the emotions and character beats that are meant to be at the heart of the series, so that viewers spend too much time trying to solve the show rather than engaging with it.
“The attention (Jack’s death) gets catches one a little off guard,” he admitted, “and the Internet changes things in a way where the conversation happens so quickly and so intensely for a show that’s become really popular. You have to be cognizant of it.”
He called the situation “a balancing act,” and said he didn’t want to change his own plans for the series because some corner of fandom has started to treat the show like it’s Serial season 3.
“I think our first episode will feed the beast enough,” he added, “and our plan that we’ve always had will fulfill people and not get overweighted one way or the other.”
In theory, ending the season two premiere with what seems to be teen Kate and teen Randall crying over Jack’s death, and Kate vowing to go tell Kevin about what just happened — a conversation the adult Kate described to Toby earlier in the episode — followed by a tearful Rebecca driving past the burned-out wreckage of their house, would seem to be filling in most of the remaining blanks. But This Is Us isn’t done teasing out this macabre mystery just yet, as Fogelman and the cast appeared after a screening of the premiere last night to talk about how this was just part of the puzzle. Per EW:
Moore wants you to pay attention to some of the clues planted in that final sequence. “There were some clues I don’t know if people picked up on — Kate was holding a dog, Randall’s got a girlfriend, and Kevin has a broken leg,” she says. “These are all things that I think people are going to see sort of the origin of in the next couple of episodes, leading up to figuring out a bigger piece of the puzzle.”
Now, mysteries and puzzles have to some degree been a part of the deal from the beginning of the show, given the twist from the pilot about Jack and Rebecca being everyone else’s parents. But we’ve reached a point where this one puzzle has now started to overwhelm the many things This Is Us is good (and, at times, great) at, and to turn into the exact kind of Reddit bait that Fogelman said he doesn’t want it to be.
The original version of the pilot casually mentioned that Kate and Kevin’s father was dead (before we knew who that father was). That line was taken out prior to airing so that even the very fact of Jack’ death could be elongated into a puzzle the audience could try to put together when they weren’t busy crying over young Randall’s obvious pain or a wise monologue from William. But the elongation of that reveal added nothing, and the longer the show spends turning the details of Jack’s death into a parlor game, the more it takes away from the emotional power of it. Jack’s death is a huge deal to all three of his kids, and especially to Kate, but we’re nearing the point — if we haven’t already passed it — where when the full details finally come out, it runs the risk of being like one of those Lost mysteries that got solved in the final season, where everyone was so busy either being annoyed their guess was wrong, or bored because they guessed right long ago, to feel any of what the characters were going through in the moment.
As for the parts of the premiere that weren’t explicitly designed to wind up on fan conspiracy boards, “A Father’s Advice” was primarily the mixed bag we’ve come to expect from This Is Us, but with a few subtle tweaks and improvements.
The Randall/Beth/William corner of the show is always going to be better than the rest of it, and there’s just no way around that at this point. The performances by Sterling K. Brown, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Ron Cephas Jones leave their co-stars in the dust, and there’s more dramatic meat and more nuance to their various problems than there are for Kate, or Kevin, or Jack and Rebecca. But this was a particularly good episode for the trio, especially in how it put more weight on Beth while acknowledging that Randall, like his father, has a tendency to unfairly make life-changing decisions for the both of them without consulting her first. He is pushing a lot on her all at once, and she’s doing the best she can with it, and the idea of them opening their home to a troubled older kid seems more promising and original than them adopting a baby and trying to recreate Randall’s origin story.
Also, the scene at the park with Beth and William seemed to answer the question of how Jones is going to stay part of the show without turning into a ghost. Most episodes last season had a binary structure: stories for each adult sibling in the present day, and a Jack/Rebecca/kids story set only in one era (babies, kids, or teens). By toggling back only a few months to right before the Memphis trip — and, for that matter, by ending the episode at least a few weeks, if not more, after Rebecca came to bring a drunken Jack home — the premiere suggested a show that intends to be more flexible about its structure, and how much it bounces around in time. The training wheels are off now that we know the characters and how the storytelling works, so there should be plenty of room to hit multiple eras, or multiple windows within the same era, in an episode rather than keeping it to two parallel tracks each week.
The Kevin and Kate subplots were… fine. I did appreciate the bandleader making Kate realize that their rejection of her had nothing to do with her physique, given the monotonous season one focus on her weight, and am hopeful his comments were the show signaling that we’re finally going to get other kinds of stories about her. The codependent triangle of Kevin, Kate, and Toby was familiar territory — Kevin even interrupts a big moment between them, just like he did on their last birthday back in the series premiere — and having all three of them back in LA, and thus so far from The Randall Show, makes them feel even more inessential, but the show has definitely done more annoying stories with them.
And the flashbacks, where the kids struggled with their parents’ separation while Jack fell off the wagon, were all effective, up through the cliche-defying moment when Rebecca knocked on the door a second time, rather than leaving Jack to wallow in self-pity and try to fix himself. That was the show surprising not with a huge plot twist, but with focusing on what this particular character would do in this particular moment, given all that we know about her and their marriage. And then we went back to America’s favorite guessing game: How They Killed Their Father.
The Kevin and Kate parts of the show I’ve accepted as the cost of doing business with the rest, but the sooner This Is Us turns over this particular card, the better everything about the series will be.
What did everybody else think?