Photo: This is Us (NBC)

This Is Us is a show that tends to build episodes around character rather than theme. Last week, Kate’s issues with self-worth, Randall’s anxiety, and Rebecca’s loneliness didn’t all tie into one central idea. But by exploring how those issues manifested in both 1990 and 2008, the episode still created a strong sense of cohesion. That episode put character before theme and was all the stronger for it. “The Most Disappointed Man” does the opposite: It establishes a central theme—in this case, the legal and judicial system and all the complications therein—and hopes character development will follow. Unfortunately, it’s a gamble that doesn’t quite pay off.

“The Most Disappointed Man” is clearly an episode with the best of intentions. It wants to explore how the strictly codified rules and regulations of the legal system butt up against the complexities of real life. That’s best demonstrated through a quick exchange between the two judges responsible for sending our central characters’ lives in different directions. “Do anything good lately?” Judge Walter Crowder (who handled William’s drug sentencing) asks Judge Ernest Bradley (who handled the Pearsons’ adoption case). “I don’t know,” Bradley responds, “You?” “No idea,” Crowder admits. Judges are meant to be unbiased servants of the law, but, of course, they’re just as human as anyone else. And they’re frequently unsure if whether what they’re doing is creating a net positive or a net negative in the world. Unfortunately, outside of that one exchange, this episode struggles to bring that idea to life in a fully satisfying way.

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That’s particularly the case for William’s story this week, which is less a story about William and more a story about a kindly judge who helps save a man from himself. Though this episode tries to dig into the complexities of the prison–industrial complex, William’s storyline feels too much like it exists in a fantasyland. Have there been white judges who have exercised leniency when it comes to sentencing black defendants? Of course. Is that the most common story in the American criminal justice system? Absolutely not. In fact, many would argue the criminal justice system is inherently racist. But because this is a one-off storyline, This Is Us doesn’t have time to explore the real-life complexities of the situation. So while in a vacuum, William kicking his drug habit through the sheer force of Crowder’s benevolent convictions is a lovely idea, in a larger context the story is in danger of coming off as tone deaf white savior narrative.

Slightly more nuanced, although still flawed, is the story of Rebecca and Jack’s attempts to legally adopt Randall. It’s a long journey for them, with a full year’s worth of social worker visits before they can move towards finalizing the adoption. But they face yet another hurdle when their case comes before Judge Bradley, a black judge who has concerns about a white couple raising a black baby. Bradley’s monologue about the ways in which his father was able to guide him through a racist world because he also had the lived experience of facing racism is an incredibly powerful one. But because Bradley is a one-off character, it’s hard to give his perspective the same weight as Jack and Rebecca’s. And I’m just not sure that presenting Bradley as an antagonistic force does a lot to deepen the show’s overall storytelling. Rather than open up a new storytelling wrinkle or point of view, the episode just reinforces two things we already know: 1.) There are elements of Randall’s life that are a lot harder because he was raised in a white family and 2.) Jack and Rebecca are aware of that fact and have always tried to go above and beyond to compensate for it.

The strongest element of this episode is once again the Randall storyline, largely because it does a better job of embracing the complexities of the legal issues it wants to explore: Is it better for Dejà to stay in touch with her mom or to make a clean break? Yet even though it strives for nuance, it still feels like This Is Us is eliding some real-world details. For one thing, the episode never quite brings up what should be a central issue: Reunification of a child with her parent is almost always the goal of foster care. And though it’s natural that Randall and Beth might rail against that idea if they feel it isn’t in Dejà’s best interest, it’s strange that the episode doesn’t even establish that concept as its framework.

Still, even if I have some complaints about the episode’s verisimilitude, it at least settles on what feels like a realistic core issue: Dejà is a child surrounded by imperfect adults who will make the choices that define her future. Just as Rebecca, Jack, their social worker, and Judge Bradley made the decisions that shaped Randall’s life, Randall now has to do the same for Dejà. And though Dejà’s mom Shauna gives—in my opinion at least—a fairly good excuse for missing her court-ordered visit with her daughter (she had recently been beaten up and didn’t want Dejà to see her bruised and bloodied face), at first Randall can only see the issue as black and white: Shauna has a pattern of disappointing Dejà and that must be because she’s a fundamentally bad person. But Shauna makes a different argument. Yes, sometimes you make choices about your life but other times choices are made for you. Because of the decisions made on his behalf, Randall grew up in a world full of opportunity. He had a luxury of choice Shauna didn’t. Nor did she have a kindly Judge Crowder to give her the second chance William got. Though Randall ends their conversation coldly, he eventually comes to empathize with Shauna’s point of view. The Pearsons’ initial instinct might be to fold Dejà firmly into their family and never look back (Righteously Angry Mama Bear Beth is maybe the best Beth of all), but that’s not necessarily what’s actually in Dejà’s best interest. She deserves to have the choice and the chance to stay in touch with her mom.

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The episode ends with a couple patented This Is Us twists. It turns out both William and baby Randall had major courthouse turning points in the same place at roughly the same time. And older William, alone and dying of cancer, was about to shoot up for the first time in decades before Randall knocked on his door and set his life on a whole new path. They’re not bad reveals, per say, but as with the rest of the episode they feel tied to theme rather than to character. And while I applaud “The Most Disappointed Man” for trying something slightly different, in the end it’s an episode that just doesn’t quite pass the bar.


Stray observations

  • Kate and Toby get a sweet little runner about marriage and eventually settle on having a big traditional wedding rather than a rushed courthouse one. This is yet another episode that uses Toby well without overusing him, and I actually found his sweatshirt proposal quite charming.
  • Kevin, meanwhile, is pushed to his breaking point and breaks up with Sophie after having a dream about parenting as an addict. I’m still not fully connecting to Kevin’s addiciton storyline, although I did enjoy his manic conversation with the engagement ring salesman.
  • My absolute favorite exchange in this episode is when Dejà reveals she’s been saving up her allowance for her mom. I expected Randall to argue that Dejà should keep her money for herself, but instead he quietly gets to work making her plan happen. I found the whole thing incredibly touching.
  • Though it’s not incumbent upon a TV show to be an educational program, but I do kind of wish this episode had more explicitly defined the concept of mandatory minimum sentencing for those who might have been confused as to why Judge Crowder sentenced a man to 10 years for stealing a TV.
  • I don’t know if this is a slight retcon or if I just don’t understand the legality at play, but back in “The Trip” Rebecca worried that Randall’s birth parents could have rights over him because they hadn’t signed any papers to legally give their baby up for adoption. At the time I took that to mean that Jack and Rebecca hadn’t be able to legally adopt Randall, but clearly that’s not the case. Adoption law specialists fill me in: Could William have had rights over Randall even once Jack and Rebecca had legally adopted him? Or were Rebecca’s fears unfounded?

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