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.
“The Wedding” had a number of those in the way it effectively mixed the sweet of Kate’s wedding with the bitterness of Jack’s absence, and how it gave all four surviving Pearsons a chance to finally achieve some closure, exhale, and move on. Kate, always the most Jack-obsessed of the siblings, was able to dump out the ashes to make more room for Toby’s increased presence in her life — more than justifying Toby’s defense of her to his understandably wary parents(*) — and she and Rebecca had a startlingly healthy conversation about Jack and their own fraught relationship. Randall’s worst case scenario game proved to be a big hit with Kevin, and the two brothers working together brought out the best in Kevin, even if his toast occasionally dwelled too much on him rather than the bride and groom. And the episode deftly showed how things will continue to be bumpy with Deja, as all of the work by Beth’s cousin Zoe was undone in a single innocuous compliment from Toby’s mom, who had no idea Deja wasn’t Randall’s biological daughter. (It’s a smart but subtle — particularly for a show that doesn’t usually have much need for subtlety — inversion of the young Randall scenes, in that everyone always knew Randall was adopted from the moment they saw him with either parent, where Deja can look forward to a lot of this confusion if she stays with Randall and Beth.)
(*) Toby wasn’t always The Worst this season, but Toby as a Dan Lauria/Wendie Malick delivery system was definitely his best role on the show so far.
This was not a great second season, and I’m wary of some of the stories teased during Randall’s toast, particularly anything having to do with Jack’s time in Vietnam. (The “bad guy” card game from the season one finale has me very worried every time This Is Us tries genre-hopping.) But the finale and “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life” were a much stronger conclusion than the season seemed capable of even a few weeks ago. This will never be a show I love unreservedly. But when it’s good, it’s good enough for me to look past the bad parts.
What did everybody else think, of both the finale and season two overall?