A review of tonight’s This Is Us coming up just as soon as I can see the Magic Eye…
Creative teams of new shows often make storytelling decisions without thinking through the long-term consequences of them. Aaron Sorkin, for instance, once wanted to do a West Wing scene where President Bartlet was watching a daytime soap, and the only way he could justify to himself that POTUS would goof off in the middle of a work day was if he was so seriously ill — say, with a case of secret, relapsing, remitting multiple sclerosis — that he just wasn’t up to handling the duties of his office. It was only after it aired that Sorkin realized that Bartlet hiding such a condition would be a huge deal if it ever came out, which significantly changed the direction of his second and third season running the show.
I’m guessing the This Is Us writers put more thought into what’s revealed about Rebecca in “The Trip” — that Rebecca not only knew where William was all these years, but knew that William had gotten clean while Randall was still a kid (and one growing increasingly fixated on the idea of finding his biological parents), and chose not to bring them together out of fear Randall might reject her — and where it will take her relationship with Randall going forward. But I fear that it may be a development that permanently colors my feelings for Rebecca.
It was already a big deal that Rebecca knew about William from the start but kept it a secret, but you could understand it on some level if her only knowledge of him was the junkie musician who left her son at the fire station. That’s her protecting Randall as much as it is protecting herself. This choice, though, is entirely about Rebecca, and given what we’ve seen in all the flashbacks about how acutely young Randall feels the need to connect with his birth parents, it’s almost unspeakably cruel that she would never tell him.
And that might work as a story development in a drama that’s much darker and more emotionally grey than This Is Us aspires to be, but this is a fundamentally nice show about a family that, while it has its issues from person to person, is meant to good and even admirable on the whole. And so much of that is based on those flashbacks and the interactions we see Jack and Rebecca having with The Big Three as kids and teenagers, and how they are presented as parents trying very hard to do right by their children. They can make mistakes and hurt each other in the moment, but this digs so deep to the core of who Randall is and the pain he’s been carrying for his entire life, that I fear I won’t be able to watch Rebecca flashbacks from now on without thinking of what she did to Randall, and why she did it. Randall suggests at the episode’s end that he may one day be able to move past it, but she’s his mother, so he’s tied to her in a way we aren’t from the audience. From where I sit, it’s a lot harder to forgive or forget.
Earlier today, Todd VanDerWerff at Vox published a story about how This Is Us has improbably become the biggest hit of the TV season, when family dramas almost never are phenomenons in this way (and seemed to be going extinct on the broadcast networks when Parenthood ended). One of the keys to the show’s success, Todd suggests, is its dependence on twists — Jack and Rebecca are the other characters’ parents! Rebecca got remarried to Jack’s buddy Miguel! Jack is dead in the present! — that create buzz and viewer urgency in a way that a more traditional family drama wouldn’t.
The problem with twist-driven storytelling, though, is that the need to keep piling one twist on top of another can overwhelm what actually makes sense for the characters and their stories. And I fear that, going forward, Rebecca may be forever defined by this particular twist in a way the creative team may not have intended.
Some other thoughts:
* Though the three Pearson siblings spend the day after Thanksgiving together, there’s much less interaction between Randall and Kate than I would have hoped for. We’ve gotten a good amount of each of them with Kevin in both past and present, but barely anything between the two of them in either era. That Kevin is trying to get Kate to come to New York for a while will hopefully give us a better sense of how she and her other brother get along.
* The episode’s eponymous drug trip provides the only way (short of dream sequence, which would have served the same purpose, dramatically) for any of the adult versions of the kids to appear in a scene with Milo Ventimiglia. Still, the episode’s most powerful Jack/Randall scene took place in the past as Jack did push-ups at the dojo with Randall on his back. (Though even that was colored by Rebecca’s presence there after she had run out on the clean and sober William.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com