And so, this is it for "This Is Us."
Tuesday night's season premiere marked the beginning of the end for the beloved timeline-hopping family drama. I don't know if we'll ever recover – and I certainly don't know how Kleenex stock will ever recover.
That being said, despite being the show's final season premiere ever and its legacy of shocking, sob-inducing twists and turns, the NBC drama went fairly subdued for its season six debut. Yes, even with "challenge" right there in the episode's name – in reference to a high-profile tragedy, at that – the premiere was thankfully not a test of one's tear ducts, instead focusing on how much the Big Three have evolved over the years. Orrrrrr not, as we see many of their personality traits from childhood are still key parts of their characters decades later, for better and for worse. I certainly have my nitpicks and issues – mostly named Philip – but overall, from the deft character work to the smart resetting of the plot's pieces and gentle push forward, it was a solid start to what hopefully will be a rewarding end to this often remarkable show.
Here are my five major takeaways from the start of the final season of "This Is Us" – besides "Did Jack REALLY think REO Speedwagon would be the next Beatles?" Because swing and a miss on that. And what did Treat Williams do to deserve that shade from "The Manny" guy?! You can't talk about Mr. "Everwood" that way! Anyways, back to the important takeaways ...
1. Kevin goes back to where he started – for better or for worse
Remember all the way back to the first episode – if you didn't, don't worry; the premiere flashes back there just in case – when Kevin bored a duo of dancing models with some naval-gazing bro-psychology about how the Challenge explosion set him down the terrible path to "The Manny"? Well, turns out that might not have just been some drunken sadboi ramblings but actually correct!
In the flashbacks to 1986, we see the terrible Challenger explosion, how the young Big Three reacted to it, and how Rebecca and Jack tried to help guide them after this potentially formative moment. In traditional form, Kevin seemingly buries it, behaving aloof about the tragedy by focusing on his mac 'n' cheese and tossing it off as just something that happened on TV.
But while it might not seem like it, Jack thinks that Kevin does grasp what took place; his brain's just not letting him think too hard about it out of survival. That's true (Jack and Kevin, always so similar) as we later see Kevin go visit Kate in bed and reveal that he's processed the Challenger explosion and come to a devastating discovery: that their parents will die someday.
Jack thought that this behavior would help Kevin grow up faster – but since Kevin struggled to find ways to actually process and accept reality and his emotions, that hasn't been the case. From desperate needs for attention and validation, to resorting to alcohol, to jumping into relationships, Kevin's worked hard to find something that makes him happy – even if superficially so – while denying reality as long as possible. He's lost – but at least he's getting better at realizing this, as we see in the season premiere.
You see, he and Madison are still living together – her in the house, him in the garage – despite the whole "we were gonna get married, but right before the ceremony, we broke up" thing. Awkward does not begin to cover it – but for the sake of the babies and, perhaps most of all, for the sake of Kevin's fantasy of fulfillment and purpose, the two act like everything's normal and perfect, that they're the "Porsche of slightly awkward co-parenting." He even gets a bonus air-popper: How bad could things be!?
Pretty bad, as it turns out, as Kevin arrives home one night to meet Eli, a nice guy from Madison's book club who also happens to stay behind to help clean up afterward. And call each other cute nicknames. And maybe binge some TV shows together. And have lingering goodbyes with romantic tension between them. Annnnd are clearly dating, if not for the giant former sitcom star elephant in the garage.
Now, we can argue if this is poor form on Madison's part not to give some kind of heads up to her live-in former fiance about moving on and their respective romantic lives – but the important thing is this is a tough wake-up call for Kevin to stop ignoring reality as well as his true emotions, and realize this is not, and was not, a feasable life strategy for anyone.
To make matters even more complicated, Kevin gets a call from an unexpected part of his past: his former director from "The Manny." As you might expect, he's not thrilled to reconnect with the actor who rose to some metric of respect and prominence while he was stuck in the ashes of Kevin burning down his show and his bridges. He comes with a (half-hearted) olive branch of sorts, however: The network wants to reboot "The Manny," complete with Kevin now playing the dad. It'd offer a steady gig in town by the babies – but Kevin can't stand the idea of going back to "The Manny," so he passes.
For now. By the episode's end, after moving out of Madison's garage and back in with Kate, he's on board with the idea – albeit not quite thrilled. After all, "This Is Us" started with Kevin falling asleep in Kate's house, unfulfilled in his acting career with "The Manny." Six seasons later, he's now falling asleep in Kate's house, unfulfilled in his acting career with "The Manny 2.0." He's gone full circle – but it's not all grim for Kevin. He's at least more aware of himself and his struggles – plus he brings up that Rebecca's really not doing well, accepting and talking about a harsh reality as opposed to burying it. He may landed in essentially the same spot, but he's not entirely the same person he was – so maybe, as Kate monologues, there is some light in the darkness for him.
As for Rebecca, though ...
2. Rebecca's decline has already begun
Tuesday night's premiere was easy on the waterworks, but it still had its gutpunches – mainly Rebecca who, after a season of anxious but happy holding steady, is now on the unfortunate decline.
While taking Miguel and a very social Nicky on a train ride with Kate's little ones, she suddenly finds herself unable to remember the word "caboose." Mandy Moore (perenially underrated on this show) movingly performs the slow-boiling annoyance and creeping anxiety underneath, particuarly aided by director Ken Olin's flashback flourishes which visually capture the frustrating fog hiding the obvious answer from her memories, constantly at her – and our – fingertips yet miles away. Eventually, the slow boil blows up in rage, exploding seemingly out of nowhere about why she can't remember this simple silly word – worst of all, in front of the Big Three at their birthday meet-up. She gets to "caboose" after a while, but after this ordeal – and a scene with her doctor, confirming growing plaques on her brain – there's no more denying that the tragic future we've seen in the flash-forward scenes is finally becoming her present.
But hey, she's not completely out of it yet. In fact, she's still got plenty of feistiness – and not just for the word meaning the end of a train. Just ask Nicky, who after a day filled with chattering upon chattering upon chattering about stalking his long lost love Sally on social media, gets a burst of Rebecca's (polite) wrath, firmly noting that life's short so if he wants to see Sally, just friggin' see her already. So time for a road trip – one hopefully for everyone to remember.
3. Randall meets his robber
Speaking of recalling things, remember Randall's nightmarish collision with an armed burglar? He still certainly does – especially when he gets an email his birthday morning from an insider telling him that the police caught the guy who did it. And despite Beth's finest efforts – Randall, you are a very ridiculous man – he simply must see this man and confront him about what he did to his family and his mental state.
So Randall goes to his court date and even sneaks his way into having a face-to-face conversation with the burglar, which ... doesn't seem like this should happen, right? I can't imagine people – no matter if they are a well-liked local politician – are able to just confront the accused criminals who personally impacted them in an open hallway, with no real supervision. But anyways, Randall tries to say his peace but gets none as the accused is clearly a burned-out addict who doesn't remember that night or why he took a family photo or where he even really is. If Randall wanted some satisfaction and catharsis, this wasn't it.
If he can't find satisfaction, maybe he can at least find a solution – so Randall pays the man's bail with the promise that he'll meet him at the local shelter and check in. Classic Randall – and not only because he performed a similar act for his biological father. His hero mode was always ingrained, going back to worrying about the astronauts' families after the Challenger explosion and wanting to make them food in their time of need.
Rebecca loves his care and concern for others, but also worries that he'll break his mind with disappointment trying to fix and help everyone. Conveniently enough, cut back to the present, and the burglar doesn't show up to meet Randall at the shelter. Hey, at least he still got "the Beth Door" at home.
That's not all, though. He also finds a new motivation and a new mission: to do more for the poor, afflicted and addicted in his city. A noble goal – but where will it lead for him, Beth and company? Just saying: The polician storylines have rarely gone all that well for him – or for "This Is Us."
4. Kate once again comes in a distant third
It's funny that, while Rebecca and Jack recap how their kids handled the Challenger tragedy and discuss what they hope and fear may be their future, they don't even mention Kate. Funny ... and fitting as Kate's typically drawn the shortest straw when it comes to attention on "This Is Us," something that didn't change in the season six premiere.
While the episode took plenty of time to peel away at the complexities of Kevin's easy-going facade and Randall's ever-evolving hero complex, Kate's storyline once again felt like it was living off scraps of the show's attention. She's raising the babies and quietly putting up with a new long-distance marriage thanks to Toby's fancy new job in San Francisco – and while he's trying his best to still be present even from far away, video-chatting and booking her birthday surprises from the office, she's clearly not fulfilled emotionally with the all-too-brief conversations, getting accidentally cut off before she can finish an "I love you too."
Even if we didn't already know exactly where this is headed ... we'd know exactly where this is headed, no matter Toby's surprise visit at the end. And at least in this episode, there's nowhere near the depth of the other storylines to make it feel anything more than sadly inevitable. There's a connection here between her peppy reaction to the Challenge explosion – she's fine because at least it happened in the sky, close to heaven – and her "this is fine/finding light in the darkness" attitude with Toby in the present, something potentially bordering on Kevin-esque denial. But while her brother gets analysis and time to develop, the show and even her parents just move past her pretty quick.
Maybe – surely – there's more spotlight for Kate to come this season. I am concerned, though, since this has been the case for the character for most of "This Is Us" – and, most worrying, this final season is likely going to need to use a lot of her plot and screentime to develop Mr. Grumblypants McBritish from a persnickety minor character into a suitable and deserving final romantic interest. And ... well, about that ...
5. Mr. Grumblypants McBritish wins over exactly no one
In last year's big final reveal, we learned that it wasn't Kevin getting married but actually Kate – to her snooty boss at work, Mr. Grumblypants McBritish. (Sorry, that's obviously not accurate; his name is actually Mr. Grumblytrousers McBritish.) We're obviously going to get to know him better – and hopefully like him better – this final year, a lot of ground to make up in a single season with no shortage of other plotlines.
The show made their first attempt in the premiere, and ... welp, I still have no urge to stop calling him Mr. Grumblytrousers McBritish.
"The Challenger" tries to lay the groundwork in the middle of the episode, with Kate spinning by the school only to accidentally overhear Grumblytrousers breaking up with his girlfriend. Already I've got problems, as splitting up with somebody at your place of work – AND with the door wide open so anyone and everyone can hear – is pretty unprofessional, not to mention just plain rude. To make matters worse, his seeming attempt at "letting her down easy" is to say it's not her fault ... but he finds her profoundly boring. Cool guy! He tries to compliment her and take the blame, but it's hard to hear any of that through the "boring" insults and being thoroughly condescending.
So the character rehabilitation is clearly off to a flying start.
The episode tries to make him a semblance of charming in the next scene as he takes Kate – grumbling the whole way, natch – to a birthday surprise from her students: a performance of "Time After Time." It's so sweet and heartwarming that even Grumblytrousers cracks a hidden smile at Kate's touched reaction. I guess that's our flicker of a potential spark growing between the two – plus, during the office fight, Jessica the now ex-girlfriend quickly mentions some sort of traumatic past that he uses as an excuse to be cold and prat-ish. So expect a Grumblytrousers solo episode at some point this season.
I'm sorry, though, it's not enough. Episode writer and show creator Dan Fogelman is a big believer in the power of grand gestures, but one nice birthday surprise does not erase ... everything else this character has done since he's been introduced into the show. And I'm sure we'll find out what happened sooner than later, but a big traumatic past is no excuse for being a rude jerk. So we've still got a lot of work to do – and unfortunately not that much show left to do it in a way that feels natural, rewarding and a deserving ending for Kate. With all that, come her big wedding finale, when she says "I do," I fear we may all cry out "I object!"
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.