What does This is us special is its ability to take what appears to be the worst form of sitcom-y storytelling – in this case a Siri-related texting accident that lets a father hear about his teenage daughter’s sex life – and turn it into something really thoughtful and moving. While the protective father / rebellious daughter dynamics at play in this week’s Randall / Deja review are probably largely related to many parents and teens, This is us lifts the formula by leaning into the specificity of Randall and Deja’s situation.
Of course, it’s only natural that Randall would freak out when he found out that his teenage daughter was secretly taking a bus ride of several hours to visit her boyfriend outside the state. But with a little help from Beth, he is also able to reach the extra layer that is at stake here: Deja joined the Pearson family when she was 12 years old, already on her way into her teens. Randall feels a loss as he missed her previous childhood. He wants her to remain frozen in amber to compensate for that time, and it will require an effort on his part to change the mindset he explains in an incredibly moving moment of humble, empathetic parenting.
From Deja’s perspective, her sometimes tumultuous childhood with her mother and her even more tumultuous time in the care system gave her a greater sense of independence than many children her age. While some teens may have counted their blessings of coming “easily” out for such a major offense, Deja refuses to retire as Randall says she will not be allowed to see Malik for a while. Though This is us let that tension remain unresolved for now, it’s helped by the specificity and empathy that the show extends to both halves of her father / daughter pairing – and to Beth, who is one of many mothers who get a moment to to shine in this father-centered episode.
Specificity is also the key to why Jack / Rebecca flashbacks tend to work so well. They find their strength in the small, related details of childhood: the phone number written inside Kevin’s shoes. The joy of eating whipped cream straight up out of the can. The way Jack and Rebecca turn their usual dynamics so that she is the calm, confident, and he is confused and insecure. Full-time stay at home is her domain, and as Jack takes on it for an afternoon of big three-movies, he realizes what a non-stop job it actually is.
In contrast, the Kevin and Kate reviews often suffer because of their lack of specificity. For example, I’m amazed at Kevin and Madison’s current custody system and at the show’s refusal to clarify the issue. Do the twins live full time at Madison’s and Kevin just visit them there? Or do they share their time 50/50 between both parents? Plus whatever happened to the magical nanny that Madison could not stop raving about back in “I have it here”?
The lack of detail makes it hard to say exactly what Kevin is frustrated with here. In the broadest sense, he is obviously (and understandably) angry that he is not getting the perfect nuclear family in his dreams. But does work keep him away from his planned time with his kids? Or does he need a custody agreement that he feels favors Madison? Going down with Kate and Toby is certainly not a sign of a man ready to raise two children. But on the other hand, if Madison is the one who objectively spends more time with the twins, her brusque “we will both miss things in their lives!” reaction to Kevin’s sadness feels a little cruel.
There are also good things in Kevin’s story. His decision to approach Cassidy instead of calling his 25-year-old teammate for a booty call is a welcome rejection (and a nice echo of a similar moment in the second season episode “Number one”). And it’s fun to watch him navigate by being back on a sitcom in a whole new role. Plus his scene with Toby about the strengths of squares and triangles was cute. It just feels like a story about co-parenting and time management needs to be rooted in the details of these detail-oriented topics.
The Kate thing is doing a little better this week. It’s not exactly captivating, in itself, but it does find a nice, empathetic way to explore the story of a couple doing their best in a difficult situation. It’s also a good example of the benefit that this show gets from its time-jumping premise. In any other season, this would have just been another annoying Kate / Toby rift that can all too easily be healed by a magnificent gesture. Now that we know that their marriage does not last, however, there is an interesting thrill of watching them try to navigate their relationship in the present.
We also get the introduction of the ominous smoker – the grill unit that Toby buys to bring his family together, but which we learn will eventually be the source of a traumatic first memory for Baby Jack, who still has flashbacks to it as an adult in long future. (Between this and Crock Pot, Pearsons should just stay away from all slow-cooking devices, huh?) You never know what you’ll remember one day before it’s over.
The day Toby grills for his family becomes the day his marriage ends, just as the day Jack lost Kevin in the mall became the day the Pearson family had a sundae movie marathon became the day Jack’s mother died. The gloomy ending is fitting for an episode that is as much about motherhood as fatherhood. And since we do not know much about Jack’s relationship with his mother – especially after he married Rebecca and started his own family – it should hopefully leave next week’s episode with lots of complicated specificity to introduce.
- I can not decide if this is a deliberate timeline shift or just a continuity flaw, but last week Uncle Nicky talked about going back east to help Rebecca’s “meat head son” break ground in the new cabin. But here Kevin does not seem to have any plans to involve the cabin?
- It was something of a gamble too This is us to introduce Phillip so late in the course of the series, but the way he turns what seems like a cynical rant about his ex-wife, to a sweet, positive point of view for Kate, was a really, really nice character beat for him.
- I’m both proud and embarrassed at how quickly I recognized the first three films as An American tail based on a few lines of dialogue.
- I feel like the child Randall should have been a lot more nervous when Kevin left that cinema, and the adult Randall should have been a lot more nervous while teaching Deja to drive.
- Justin Hartley and Caitlin Thompson have a great moment of physical comedy where they drink from the wrong coffee mugs and then quietly switch them.
- I loved the plaid dress Kate wore during the current opening scene!
- Have This is us used Cat Stevens’ “Far And Son” before? Or does it just feel like a song the program should have used a million times now?