Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us veers into after-school special territory, even more than usual

Photo: This Is Us (NBC)
Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

Racism is bad, personal hygiene is important, and pushing yourself too hard while recovering from an injury can be dangerous. Those are just a couple of the lessons imparted by tonight’s episode of This Is Us, which veers even more into after-school special territory than this show usually does. To be clear, I don’t necessarily mean that as a critique; earnestness has long been both This Is Us’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness. But this episode piles on the “Big Conversations” to such a degree that they can’t all be redeemed by the show’s nuanced execution and stellar acting.

But before we get into all that: Holy shit, Kate is pregnant! I pride myself on being able to spot TV and film pregnancies from a mile away (literally anytime a woman throws up in a movie or TV show, she’s pregnant. You can put money on that), but this one genuinely surprised me. This Is Us cleverly takes a critique of its first season—that Kate was hyper-focused on weight loss to an unrealistic degree—and uses it to throw the audience off the scent of what’s actually going on. In other words: I knew Kate was acting weird in this episode but I chalked that up to bad writing, not intentional storytelling. (Her ditching Kevin post-knee surgery is arguably way less weird than that time she left Toby immediately after his heart attack to go to weight loss camp.) But that last scene is a patented This Is Us twist that recontextualizes everything we’ve seen in the episode beforehand: Kate isn’t anxious about fitting into a dress for a bar mitzvah gig, she’s anxious about having a healthy pregnancy. And given how many issues Kate has with her own mother (a trait which apparently runs in the family), watching her grapple with the concept of motherhood from the other side of the table could open up some fascinating storytelling opportunities.

In addition to being a great twist, Kate’s handling of her pregnancy is also a reflection of how the Pearson family tackles pretty much all of life challenges: By gritting their teeth and silently doing what needs to be done. Though they love a good heart-to-heart, the Pearsons also have a tendency to shove their emotions down and face their problems alone—a tendency the show explored most explicitly last week, but which has been threaded throughout the series as well. Kate is clearly terrified of losing her pregnancy, but rather than talk through those fears with Toby, she prefers to face them alone until she knows for sure whether she’s in the clear. And it’s no wonder why: For all his openheartedness, Jack also drilled home the importance of stoicism to his kids, in ways that were both explicit and implicit. He praises the way 10-year-old Kate handles her chicken pox without complaint and encourages Kevin to toughen up when it comes to dealing with his own. By the end of the episode, young Kevin has learned that even when you’re knocked down by a nasty fever, sometimes you still have to put on your snow gear and shovel the driveway anyway.

What I like about the show’s exploration of Jack’s stoicism is that it doesn’t offer a simple take on whether it’s good or bad. Jack’s probably right that Kevin’s pity party is only going to make his experience of chicken pox worse. But on the other hand, Jack’s determination to tackle his drinking problem without any outside help is also something that caused him and his family a lot of unnecessary pain throughout the years. And like his father before him, adult Kevin takes the nugget of a good idea—sometimes you have to toughen up to face life’s challenges—and pushes it way too far.

If I’m being honest, I still don’t quite know what to make of Kevin’s injury storyline. Especially because “Still There” takes a winding detour to get us back to pretty much the same place we were at the end of “Déjà Vu.” Like that episode, this one also ends with Kevin popping some pills to help him hide the extent of his knee injury. So what exactly was the point of this episode’s surgical detour? What I do like about Kevin’s storyline is that it adds just a bit more nuance to the least developed Pearson triplet. None of the information we learn about Kevin in this episode is revelatory, but it’s presented in a way that helps him snap into focus: Kevin was good at football. Like really good. In a way that seemed to guarantee him a future until one day he hurt his knee and that whole future was suddenly over. The idea that everything can disappear in an instant is now at the core of Kevin’s approach to life, and while I’m still not loving everything about this storyline (“guy toughs his way through an injury to save his career” is just such well-trod TV ground at this point), getting to the core of Kevin’s emotional motivation does intrigue me.

The final two storylines of tonight’s episode both deal with kids feeling out of place, but capture This Is Us at its most and least after school special-y. Look, this is never going to be a subtle show, but the Deja stuff proves This Is Us can use at least some amount of subtext and nuance when it wants to. Deja continues to take one step forward, two steps back as she struggles to adjust to life in the Pearson family. This time around, the battle is over her hair, which she refuses to wash or manage in what at first seems to be an act of pre-teen rebellion, but which eventually turns out to be embarrassment over her alopecia. It’s a hair loss condition brought on by stress, which Deja doesn’t fully understand until Beth gently explains it to her. But unfortunately, their sweet connection is undone when Deja realizes that the things she tells Beth in private also get passed along to Randall. It’s not a storyline about race or gender or class, but it touches on all of those things while still feeling specific and character-driven. And most importantly, it doesn’t offer any easy answers. Some of its plot beats might fit into an after school special, but the execution elevates them into something much more complex and realistic.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the storyline about Rebecca’s mother, Janet (Elizabeth Perkins). She arrives unannounced to help Jack and Rebecca manage the Great Pearson Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1990 and winds up getting snowed in, thus allowing her long-simmering tension with Rebecca to reach a boiling point over Janet’s treatment of Randall. From the beginning, Jack and Rebecca have always seemed just a little too “woke” for their era and having Rebecca so openly and straightforwardly call out her mother’s racism rings false to me. Racism operates in an insidious, slippery way that white people are seldom taught to see or acknowledge—particularly not in the 1980s. But though This Is Us tries to depict that complexity, it also wants to have its cake and eat it too.

In other words: This episode desperately wants to get us to the moment in which Janet finally acknowledges how special young Randall is so that he can deliver a precocious, “Took you long enough.” But that moment of catharsis just doesn’t feel earned. Janet’s microaggressions (assuming Randall likes basketball, referring to the kids as “the twins and Randall,” etc.) are eminently believable, but Rebecca’s ability to call them out and Janet’s willingness to take the critique are victories that come far too easily. Plus young Randall winds up feeling like the third most important character in a story about a truly shitty part of his childhood. Jack’s explanation of the way racist comments can be disguised by a nice tone of voice is brilliant in its simplicity, but overall, the Janet storyline is too eager to provide easy answers to an impossibly large problem. As with so many after-school specials, This Is Us’ heart is clearly in the right place. But like young Randall’s early attempts at a Rube Goldberg machine, this storyline just doesn’t have the momentum it needs to stick the landing.

Stray observations

  • One of my pet peeves is when people say the word “itch” when they actually mean “scratch” (as is: “Don’t itch yourself or you’ll scar”), and this episode was truly a nightmare in that regard.
  • There were so many amazing moments from both Randalls tonight, but probably my favorites were young Randall saying, “I have a strong immune system” and adult Randall singing a snippet of his antibiotic ointment song. Also, of course Randall likes using bowling alley bumpers and Beth doesn’t. Of course.
  • This Is Us can be a little over-the-top when it wants to drill home a point, but there was something that felt frighteningly real about the casual way Janet told Kate to use the Little Mermaid costume as her “goal dress.” It’s insane how early we start impressing body issues onto young girls.
  • We’re four episodes into the season and I still have no idea what Sophie’s purpose on this show is.
  • As I mentioned last week, the child actors continue to impress across the board. But this week I was particularly struck by the wonderfully lived-in relationship between Milo Ventimiglia and Parker Bates (young Kevin).

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.