In the words of the late great David Bowie, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes are on the way for the Pearsons on Tuesday night's new "This Is Us" – especially for the parents as the next generation of the family goes from adorable kids to surly, emotionally volatile, questioning teens. You know, those wonderful years that everybody looks back fondly upon! And that's not even including Kate and Kevin who are starting all-new family adventures and all the drama that brings. And then there's the ultimate life change: a dead person maybe not being dead after all!
It's a lot to cope with – but here are the five big takeaways from the latest episode of "This Is Us" ... other than we suddenly have a weird compulsion to rewatch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (and not because of the whole undead family member thing).
1. Pray for the Pearson parents
The Pearsons have endured a lot as a family, but nothing could prepare them for the horror facing them this week: raising three teens, all going through puberty at the same time? That's just cruel and unusual punishment that even the depths of hell would find egregiously mean. When even the family doctor is like, "Good luck!," that's too much puberty for one family to handle.
That's the task for the Pearsons back in the day, as young Randall, Kevin and Kate are all changing, and Rebecca and Jack are giving them some distance as "cool" parents. (As Rebecca notes, looming over her kids is SO seventh-grade mom behavior; she's an eighth-grade mom now.) Kevin's putting on weight and getting ready for football, Kate's falling for boys and Randall ... well, maybe Randall's not changing that much as he grumbles at their doc for not having any Consumer Reports to read. He's certainly not noticing girls yet – or at least not understanding the concept of flirting. You see, while Kate "works on a class project" with her crush, their friend makes her way over to Randall – but she's neither an issue of Consumer Reports nor an episode of "Mr. Belvedere," so Randall cannot be bothered.
Eventually, though, she makes a move too obvious for even Randall to ignore: She puts on some flavored lip balm and asks if he'd like a taste. Aww, young cute love! Then she says, "I always wondered what it would be like to kiss somebody like you." Aww ... young racism!
Things are going no better on the other side of the Pearson household, where Kate is unfortunately not the main attraction for her young crush. Yeah, unfortunately puberty's arriving late for him, as he's far more excited by deserts and dioramas than girls. At least Kevin's found a new love: working out. Surely that will have no ill affects later in his life!
2. Man, Randall and Beth are strict!
Rebecca and Jack aren't the only ones dealing with growing teens and combustible feelings. In modern day, while Randall finds himself a new psychiatrist – a friendly black young father who reminds Randall of himself, leading to the episode's best line delivery, courtesy of Beth, wondering how Randall still qualifies as a "young father" – he has to take his attention to Tess as she gets in school for a controversial video she posted on the internet.
In protest against a teacher who touches her hair, Tess and a friend equally upset about getting misgendered in class make a sassy video telling their respective teachers, "Screw you." I gotta say, in the pantheon of bad things teenagers could do online these days, this seems ... pretty tame! It's not even profane! It's certainly rude, and I get why the school would want the parents to speak with Tess – and I also understand why Randall and Beth would want to make sure Tess doesn't get in the habit of posting things on the internet she may regret later. After getting on the same page with Beth, he has a kind and bordering on proud chat with his daughter, noting that he loves how she speaks her voice instead of holding it in like he did throughout his childhood and how she made his life do a somersault. (Daww!)
But then he and Beth lay down quite the hammer: SIX WEEKS GROUNDED WITH NO PHONE! That's more than a month for deservedly speaking out angerly against quiet racism in the tamest and most family-friendly terminologies possible! God, what's her punishment going to be for ACTUAL teeenage bad behavior!?
Then again, hey, it's a pandemic so maybe this is just their way of making sure she quarantines and stays social distanced.
3. Kevin's new role(s): lawyer and supportive boyfriend
Remember when Kevin's storyline was the weakest on the show? Boy, have things changed – to the degree that a plotline that sounds at face value like silliness (Kevin gets a new movie role that has Madison feeling uncomfortable) turns out to be one of the episode's most moving elements.
Yes, Kevin's sporadic film career made a comeback this week, as he snagged the lead in an upcoming legal drama directed by some hotshot out of the Cannes Film Festival. (Fun fact: Nobody's making legal dramas these days, much less notable ones for the big screen. This is somehow even less believable than Randall's undead birth mom.) Kevin's immediate reaction on getting a role in what sounds like a brainy and dialogue-driven project? I GOTTA GET BUFF! And to do so, he tosses aside Madison's thoughtfully made pancakes because he's gotta be the world's hottest lawyer. I mean, it worked out for Ryan Gosling in "Fracture," a movie clearly everyone reemembers!
Thus far, this is all a touch silly and more first-season Kevin than fifth-season – but then the show turns the story into something special. Madison seems upset about the pancakes or about the sex scene involved in the movie, but soon she reveals her actual problem: They barely know each other, and she doesn't feel like she can talk to him about the complex emotional reaction she's having to her changing pregnant body – one made even more difficult with her history of eating disorders, something Kevin knows nothing about and seems too temporarily self-centered to recognize.
Thankfully, the two have a precious and honest heart-to-heart where they open up about their insecurities. Madison explains her history of bulimia and how it's a challenge for her to remind herself to eat, especially when her belly is growing and bringing all those ugly feelings back to the fore; Kevin talks about how he's not only an alcoholic but addicted to working out as well – a good callback from the last few seasons that nobody is more Jack's son, for better and worse, than Kevin, something nicely underlined by cutting between Jack teaching Kevin how to lift weights and flashbacks to Jack learning how to lift from his dad. The two want to be good parents, but as Kevin bluntly but smartly points out, "Parents miss stuff." His family would know, from Kevin turning into a workout addict, beginning to learn his dad's bad habits and addictions, to Randall's ongoing inner battle trying to find out who he truly is, how he fits into his family's white world and how it feels to be treated as a curiosity by the kids his age – something they don't see and something he doesn't talk about, until just now with his new therapist.
Who would've expected Kevin's dumb lawyer movie would turn into such a smart and real conversation about people's long-festering wounds and the endlessly unpredictable, unforgiving blessing of parenting?
4. Kate's story still gets the short shrift
You'd think Kate and Toby seeking to adopt another child would be a big deal, but as with many of their stories over the past few seasons, it sure feels like the forgotten Big Three plot – and unfortunately that didn't change during "Changes."
On Tuesday, Kate and Toby met with a potential birth mother through the adoption agency: Ellie, a pleasant young mother whose taste in football teams and pop culture immediately makes her a winner for Kate and Toby, and whose heartfelt and honest story about losing her husband and having a surprise baby from a one-night-stand warms them to her even more.
And ... that's kind of about it for this subplot!
There's a brief moment where Kate and Toby have a weirdly intense argument about diapers right in front of Ellie in public that feels entirely like forced drama – so much so that even the show shrugs it off, with Ellie saying that how a couple fights says a lot about their relationship. And while that's a wise assessment, unfortunately, what this fight says is that the writers aren't thinking very much about this relationship. I mean, honestly: Who would heated argue about diapers, in a public parking lot, in front of a stranger they're in the process of trying to impress?
Later on, Kate and Ellie keep texting each other and bonding, but Toby reminds her to pump the breaks a bit because nothing's guaranteed, and Ellie could bail at any moment. But for what feels like it should be a notable and emotional storyline, instead Kate and Toby's adoption drama feels slight and forgettable, with the writers seemingly more engaged in dropping pop culture references. The most memorable parts of a key character's plot shouldn't be a Babu Frik hot take and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode talk. (Though Babu Frik is great, and we stan the only good part of "Rise of Skywalker.") There's certainly going to be more here to talk about, but right now "This Is Us" is taking the long, half-committed route to get there.
5. Laurel's mystery goes fishing
The saga of Randall's miraculously not-dead birth mother added another thin layer to its mystery on Tuesday night.
While the Pearsons all fought their own various parenting battles throughout the episode, "This Is Us" occasionally cut over to a new family duo: an older Vietnamese man and his young granddaughter, fishing and preparing a meal on a gorgeously glowing day. (The whole episode, directed by series regular and "The Proposal" helmer Anne Fletcher, was beautifully shot.) Seemingly the only options for this subplot were a surprise Nicky return or a clue pointing audiences in Laurel's direction – and it was, of course, the latter, as the episode ends revealing that the grandfather learned to cook for "the lady in the photographs." And while we didn't get a great look at the images, it seems obvious that they're Laurel (though a twist that this is actual a future subplot would be a classic zag-instead-of-zig "This Is Us" move).
The new information fills in the mystery a little bit more – clearly Laurel had a close tie to this man – but still leaves some big unanswered questions. Mainly, is she still alive? After all, the old man and granddaughter weren't talking about her like she was still alive and ready to walk through the door any minute.
But here's the biggest and most pressing question: Does anyone truly care? The vibes coming off this latest season-long "This Is Us" plot turn are not good – the phrase "jump the shark" has been used a few times in conversations – and it's frankly hard to get excited by yet another soapy "dead relative maybe isn't dead after all" turn. (At this point, the entire Pearson clan should ask to dig up all family gravesites and check the caskets.) Again, the show barely got away with it with Nicky, defying plausibility but, thanks to smart writing and some excellent performances, (miss you, Griffin Dunne!) developing into something really substantial. Now, they're trying to pull it again, and it already feels like diminished returns. It's clearly supposed to be the most intrigue-inducing aspect of the show; in past seasons, I may have really sat with the implications of that subplot, but instead I'm just ready to move on and get to where we're going with this mystery.
Maybe the show has something interesting planned for this plotline – again, it worked out before – but it currently feels repetitive, ridiculous and the most cheaply melodramatic way to handle Randall's complex storyline. When we have so many compelling alive characters to follow, I'm not sure why we have to keep zombie-fying dead ones to fill the time.
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.