This Is Us (NBC)

36 was a big year for The Big Three. Randall gained and lost a father. Kevin lost and gained a career. And Kate decided to lose weight only to gain a fiancé in the process. But it was also a big year for This Is Us. The show debuted as one of the most buzzed about pilots of the season and gained a passionate following of emotionally invested fans. (The Twitter hashtag for the show features a tissue box emoji, a nod to its status as TV’s biggest tearjerker.) And that means the pressure is on for the show to deliver the same thing but better this year—a curse that has haunted many hit shows before it.

I’m happy to report that This Is Us feels very much like the same show it was before. If there’s a sophomore slump in this show’s future, “A Father’s Advice” shows no signs of it yet. This premiere contains the mix of comedy, drama, and heartfelt schmaltz that made the first season such a hit. And it demonstrates that This Is Us is even more confident in its time-hopping premise. The episode still juxtaposes present-day stories about Kate, Kevin, and Randall with a thematically linked story about Jack and Rebecca in the past. But now that its audience is better versed in the show’s timeline, the episode can also casually throw in snippets of Jack and Rebecca deciding to adopt Randall in 1980 or Beth talking to William just before his trip to Memphis, while trusting its audience to keep the various timelines straight.

Though it isn’t one of the best episodes of This Is Us, “A Father’s Advice” effectively immerses us back into the world of the show, sets up the major storylines for the season, and teases out the mystery of Jack’s death in the most explicit way yet (see the Stray Observations for more on that). The premiere also answers the question of just how the show will continue to use Ron Cephas Jones’ William. One of his poems serves as the episode’s bookending voiceover and the quick flashback to his friendship with Beth allows William to feel like he’s still part of the fabric of the show without undermining the permanence of his death.

The most explicit thematic throughline of “A Father’s Advice” centers on marriage and relationships. 1990s-era Jack and Rebecca are still reeling from the fallout of their massive fight in “Moonshadow,” and in the present day, the Big Three and their respective partners must navigate relationship dilemmas of their own: Randall and Beth butt heads over the idea of adoption while Toby, Kate, and Kevin navigate the boundaries of their relationship dynamics and Kevin does basically nothing to help his stressed-out girlfriend. But the episode’s more interesting and more subtle thematic framework explores the ways in which the past repeats itself.

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Kate is following in her mother’s footsteps as she jumps wholeheartedly into pursuing a singing career. Kevin has returned to the relationship that defined his adolescence and is potentially making some of the same mistakes all over again, although that’s yet to be seen. And Randall is grappling with William’s death by trying to perfectly recreate the circumstances of his own adoption in order to create some sort of full circle moment. When Randall and Beth argue about whether or not adoption is right for them, Randall even looks to the past for help, hoping to use his own parents’ marriage as a guide. Present-day Rebecca advises Randall that sometimes marriages work best when one person pushes and the other person follows. For instance, she was hesitant about adopting Randall until Jack pressured her into it and now she can’t imagine her life without him. (The subtext that Randall is Jack and Rebecca’s favorite kid continues unfettered.)

But rather than feel bound to repeat the past, Randall instead decides to learn from it: He loves his parents but he doesn’t want a marriage like the one they had—one where one partner dominates and the other dutifully follows. Instead he wants a “perfectly imperfect” marriage of equals, like the one he’s built with Beth. Randall might have the stubborn will that characterized both of his fathers, but he’s also his mother’s son too. He’s both a leader and a peacemaker and that allows him to speak openly and honestly with Beth in order to build a new dream they both believe in. Randall and Beth eventually come to a compromise—looking into adopting an older child rather than a newborn—in a way he imagines his own parents never could have.

But maybe Randall doesn’t know his parents as well as he thinks he does.

The most powerful scene in “A Father’s Advice” subtly recontextualizes the Rebecca/Jack relationship. So far the show has established that he’s a romantic but hardworking golden boy who can do no wrong while she’s a pragmatic realist with a tendency to fret. At its best, This Is Us explores the lived-in relationship of two very different people who nevertheless love each other very much. At its worst, it falls back on stereotypes about nagging wives and put-upon husbands. But when Rebecca shows up at Miguel’s door to bring her husband home, the dynamic shifts into something completely new. For once Rebecca is the romantic optimist using a big gesture to win back her spouse. And Jack is the cynical realist who admits his problems are far bigger than he’s let on. The alcohol addiction he easily subdued as a young man has come back with a vengeance. And his inability to overpower it with the go get ’em gumption with which he tackles every other problem in life has shaken Jack to his core.

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Milo Ventimiglia has always been great on this show, but he delivers his best performance yet as Jack calmly but shamefacedly informs Rebecca just how much he’s been hiding from her. It’s the sort of scene it would be easy to overplay, particularly because Jack is drunk. But Ventimiglia keeps things beautifully restrained. And seeing Jack devoid of the can-do spirit that defines him makes the scene both unsettling and heartbreaking.

So for once, it’s Rebecca’s turn to be the one who pushes. And that’s as much a surprise for us as it is for Jack. The screen cuts to black as Jack shuts the door, fooling the audience into thinking the episode is over. But Rebecca won’t take a closed door for an answer. She pushes Jack into coming home and working through their problems together, just as he’s pushed her so many times before. Rebecca’s forcefulness changes the dynamic of the Rebecca/Jack relationship in a really interesting way and recontextualizes present-day Rebecca’s advice to Randall too; Rebecca wasn’t just a pushover in her marriage, she was sometimes the push-ee too. It’s an idea I’m really excited to see the show explore more this season. And then, of course, the episode goes and undoes that emotional high with one of the show’s most devastating endings yet. (Again, see the Stray Observations for more on that.)

One of my biggest critiques of This Is Us’ first season is that the show tended to depict its male characters far more sympathetically than its female ones, and at first it seems like “A Father’s Advice” is going to follow that path too. But instead, the episode turns the critique into storytelling fodder: Rebecca unexpectedly gets a dose of the fierce loyalty that makes Jack such a compelling character. Kate shuts down Toby and Kevin’s patronizing behavior and instead roots her confidence in herself. Even bombing an audition isn’t enough to squash her dream of making it as a singer. And the episode briefly depicts Beth as a spoilsport to Randall’s adoption dreams only to have Randall explicitly point out that that’s only true if you view her as a supporting character in his life. (Which, okay, technically she is from a TV production standpoint, but you know what I mean.)

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Though This Is Us hasn’t fixed all the problems of its first season (Toby, I’m looking at you), this premiere shows a willingness to stick with what’s working and to shift gears on what’s not. As the Big Three grow one year older and one year wiser, here’s hoping This Is Us does too.


Stray observations

  • Jack Death Watch: There’s something decidedly craven about the way this series is stretching out the mystery of how Jack died. But that won’t stop me from dutifully keeping track of all the clues. This episode ends with a heartwrenching extended look at the night of Jack’s death, which still manages to be pretty vague about what actually happened. Here’s what we know: Jack dies no more than a few months (potentially less) after the Jack/Rebecca reunion. By that point, Randall has a girlfriend, Kate has a dog, and Kevin’s leg is in a cast. Kate and Randall find out about Jack’s death before Kevin and stay with Miguel that night. Kate is the one who tells Kevin about Jack’s death. At some point, Rebecca winds up in her car wearing a Steelers jersey and carrying Jack’s possessions in a plastic bag. Oh and the entire Pearson house somehow burns down too. I’m not sure how often the show is going to be returning to the night of Jack’s death before filling in all the gaps, but I’ll try to keep track of the clues as we get them.
  • Speaking of which, welcome back to This Is Us coverage! I’m your new season two reviewer and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be writing about this show. Feel free to let me know which moments made you cry the most over on Twitter.
  • Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that Toby is absolutely INSANE in his belief that his fiancĂ© shouldn’t celebrate her birthday with HER OWN TWIN BROTHER. The Toby/Kevin conflict in this episode is really bizarre and fueled by a sense of male territorialness that the writers kind of acknowledge but perhaps not as much as they should have. (It’s hard to imagine Toby picking the same fight if Kate had a twin sister who wanted to celebrate with her.) That being said, Kate standing up to both of them was the most I’ve liked her in ages.
  • This Is Us is officially set in Trump’s America. Unless it’s set in an alternate timeline where Hillary Clinton lost the election to Rand Paul or something.
  • While discussing the Kardashians, Kevin notes, “They’re like Gremlins, by next week they’ll be a million more of them.” Considering we’ve had not one but two Kardashian pregnancy announcements in the past few days, someone on the This Is Us writing staff is clearly a prophet.
  • This episode truly presents Jack as his most flawed: Refusing to let his host put sheets on the foldout bed he’ll be sleeping on.

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