A review of the This Is Us season finale — and thoughts on season two as a whole — coming up just as soon as I get you a bowtie that Leslie Nielsen wore in The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult…
Where the Super Bowl episode that finally killed Jack was an unfortunate case of This Is Us‘s love of trickeration getting in the way of its love of working over its viewers’ tear ducts, “The Wedding” was as relatively straightforward as this show is congenitally capable of being. We opened with a wedding ceremony for an alt-universe version of Rebecca and Jack on their 40th anniversary, but this was clearly a dream from the moment we cut to the final preparations for Kate and Toby’s big day. And there were teases of stories the show will deal with next season — Toby gets sick! Kevin and Beth’s cousin travel to Vietnam to investigate Jack’s military career! Future Randall and Future Tess have a mysterious “her” (an ailing Beth? an imprisoned Deja? scandalous pop star Annie?) neither is prepared to visit! — but the hour’s focus was very clearly on the present and was for the most part emotionally effective in a way a lot of season two hasn’t been.
Sophomore seasons are hard, especially for a family show like this that doesn’t have a basic story engine the writers can rely on to keep things going even when individual character arcs are in trouble. William’s return to Randall’s life provided enough of one to carry much of the first season, and it eventually reached out to affect Rebecca and Kevin and even Kate and Toby to a degree, so it wasn’t just confined to Randall and Beth’s corner of the series. Season two didn’t have anything comparable, and the choices for the big arcs tended to be darker: Kevin hits bottom and goes to rehab, Deja’s comings and goings work a number on Randall and Beth’s heart, etc. Attempts to expand our understanding of some of the less-beloved characters didn’t always work: I came out of the all-Kevin spotlight episode feeling less sympathy towards him, rather than more. And Jack shifting from complicated ghost to outright saint made him a lot less interesting.
There were areas where season two was able to continue what was so strong in season one, and in some cases improve upon it. Episodes were a lot more structurally fluid this year, bouncing from timeline to timeline — never more potently than in last week’s thoroughly unstuck-in-time Deja spotlight — rather than sticking with season one’s fairly rigid format of a Jack and Rebecca ’80s or ’90s story thematically paralleling what the Big Three were going through as adults. Episodes felt more surprising and lived-in as a result, even if the individual stories (Randall and Beth are building managers!) weren’t necessarily as compelling. And while not all of the monologues hit their mark — Deja’s speech last week about how we’re all fundamentally the same because we all sleep wasn’t nearly as profound as intended — there were many times throughout this season where my questions about why I continued to watch the show were answered by a lovely bit of oratory delivered by Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore, or one of their co-stars.