"This Is Us" returned, and then some, on Tuesday night, delivering a two-hour premiere that felt more like four hours crammed into a single night.
Make no mistake: It was great to Pearsons all back and together – even if they're not back together emotionally after last year's dramatic fights and falling-outs. But boy, did it seem like there was a lot of characters and plot developments and backtracks to keep up with – and that's before we even get to the fact that the show goes out of its way to establish that they're living in COVID times now too. Haven't the Pearsons suffered enough; do we really have to make them endure 2020 too?
There's a ton to talk about (including that final twist) but here are the five biggest takeaways from the busy but welcome debut of "This Is Us" – beyond that apparently a 40-ingredient milkshake can actually taste good?
1. The new normal is now a new character
In case the Pearsons didn't have enough fictional troubles, this season they're also coping with our real-world issues as well.
Starting right in the aftermath of Randall and Kevin's big blowup and Madison's big baby news, the show immediately pivots to talking about COVID and the start of the outbreak. Kevin announces their big baby news social distanced on Kate's lawn. Beth updates Randall on Tom Hanks getting the rona and greets him at the door with hand sanitizer. Kevin and Madison record the first cute mask moment in entertainment history when Kev gently pulls down Madison's mask to see how she feels about his impromptu marriage proposal. (Oh, by the way, they're getting married now, and he's living in her Japanese-rific guest room; things are moving fast between those two!)
On one level, it's interesting to see a show take on our bizarre moment in history – and it makes sense that it would be "This Is Us," considering the crucial role time-hopping through specific eras play in the plot. That being said, for an episode with so much to churn through, spending the first chunk of the premiere on establishing "This Is Us" in the world of COVID only for it to never play much of a role later on made it feel more like an add-on than essential, a kind of year-in-review rather than an episode of the show.
More problematic is how the show is trying to retcon its plot to these new times. Rebecca's medical trial has been canceled now thanks to COVID, which kills off one of the major storylines from last season with a somewhat blaise shrug. Meanwhile, the gathering at the cabin is now for quarantining purposes, not just for a birthday escape. Sure, it fits more with reality today, but it's sacrificing storytelling and coherence in the process for what can feel like "ripped from the headlines" detail for the sake of "ripped from the headlines" detail. I've never had a hard time in the past keeping up with the timeline shifts, but with the show rewriting established elements and trying to build a new world on the fly, I struggled a lot more on Tuesday night (though that also might've been because the show was barrelling through characters and plotlines; as always, I like the show best when it tells a tight story and spends time to develop individual characters rather than sprawling out).
It almost feels like there's now an alternate universe timeline on the show – but then again, it feels like we're living in a bizarre alternate universe these days, so maybe that's fitting.
2. Randall and Kevin are better-ish
Last season ended with a brutal and emotionally bloody fight that would make even the UFC cringe and toss in the towel: Randall versus Kevin, with the former insulting his brother's career and the latter saying he wish they were never family. It was a war of words over Rebecca's mental health with no winner – and no end seemingly in sight.
Or ... maybe there is?
Despite leaving things on scalded scorched earth terms, Randall and Kevin were ... almost on speaking terms again during Tuesday night's premiere. Sure, things are still tense and terse between the two, but they both seem closer to mending things than expected. Both originally wanted to send naturally happy and ecstatic texts to each other after Kevin broke the news about the babies, but amended them to shorter, sulkier messages upon further review. And while their eventual conversations at the cabin were frosty, face-to-face conversation was a lot more than I was expecting after last season's blow-up – and their final chat, with Kevin asking for advice with parenting, had some warmth starting to melt the frost.
On one hand, it's frustrating to see yet another seemingly significant plot moment from last season turn out to be more of a molehill than a mountain – especially since they've done this before with Randall and Kevin. Remember their fight at the movie premiere? And how that was seemingly going to be a thing before fading immediately out of focus?
But it also feels annoyingly accurate. Anyone close with their family knows that guilt and regret of going too far with an argument and wanting to make amends – either to forgive or to ask forgiveness – but not knowing for sure how to do it, whether out of pride or just general awkwardness. Plus, you're family. There's always a part of your mind and heart that feels like you need to talk to them, even if you don't want to. It may not have been the expected fallout from their tiff, but it does feel like authentic fallout: two brothers feeling out how to connect again after burning their bridges.
3. Meanwhile, Randall and Kate: not great!
Oddly, the most interesting sibling squabble on Tuesday night wasn't Randall and Kevin, but actually Randall and Kate. In case tackling COVID wasn't already enough new material to try and incorporate in a two-hour window, "This Is Us" also brought in the George Floyd protests, quietly at first with Randall watching the infamous video and grappling with the implications with Beth but then louder by the end through a thoughtful conversastion with Kate.
While Randall, Beth and the girls watch the unrest on television, Kate's off protesting with Toby and Little Jack – though Randall and Beth seem pointedly more exhausted than inspired by his sister's sudden proper white protesting. It's not just a one-off beat, though. At the cabin, he finally voices his weariness, and wariness, to his sister, pointing out that George Floyd was far from the first black man killed by police on camera. Kate tries to say all the right things and be a good ally, but Randall points out that it's not his job to assuage her guilt and make her feel better about her actions or mistakes – something he's felt he has to do for most of his life as the lone Black member of an otherwise white family, witnessing and feeling the pain of Jonny Gammage's murder as a teen by himself, shouldering that weight alone for the comfort of others or to not be considered "difficult." In fact, when Randall talks with Malik about Gammage's death, it feels like the first time he's really been able to talk about that clearly formative memory and moment in history with someone else.
It's a tense and tough exchange, perfectly acted by Metz and Brown – the former conveying the uncertain awkwardness of suddenly finding herself out of one's experience or depth, the latter trying to be firm yet familial – and well written, getting at the tricky nuances our country's been debating and interrogating throughout the summer, from the Black experience to the emotional labor even well-intended white people inflict on minorities.
At the end, Randall's experience is particcular, but it comes to a universal feeling about the struggles of this year: We're all just sad and tired of being sad.
4. Rebecca's doing better ... for now
With the medical trial canceled, you'd think Rebecca's descent into memory loss would growing in full effect to start the season – but instead, Rebecca's doing pretty swell. She's gardening at the cabin, growing produce (and being sassy about anyone snatching her veggies), planting trees, battling poison ivy and pretty much behaving like the Rebecca we all remember. And when she does have an episode, thinking she saw William before meandering lost around the town, it's because of an easily solved medicine mix-up that Randall detects. (Because of course Randall detects it.)
I highly doubt this was the pre-COVID plan for the plot, and it's strange to see such massive plot points from last season become brushed to the side to start the season – again, almost feeling like an alternate universe from past events. But as a fan of Rebecca's character and Mandy Moore's spot-on performance, I'm happy we're not losing her yet. Plus, the show still writes some lovely moments into the premiere for this new phase, in particular Miguel and Toby having a lovely heart-to-heart about how best to support her during the process and how to take on an uncertain future – one of Toby's finer moments – as well as Miguel gifting Rebecca with apple seeds to look forward to in her garden decades in the future, as opposed to just months or years.
Also, Miguel's right: You can't just cancel Rita Moreno! We stan a "One Day at a Time" stan!
5. The past refuses to stay buried ... again
It wouldn't be a season premiere of "This Is Us" without a big twist ending – and there certainly was one on Tuesday night, though with all of the plot and characters to get through across two hours, you'd be excused for being too exhausted to truly feel it sink in.
Throughout the two-hour premiere, the episode cut repeatedly to young William and Laurel before and after Randall's birth, with William eventually dropping Randall off at the fire station after Laurel died of an overdose. There's some emotional moments in this timeline – mainly in how the episode hops between before and after Randall was born, painfully contrasting the bright hope the two have when they first fell in love with the grim despair after drug addiction takes over their lives. It mostly feels like filler, though, especially when William starts loitering the halls of the hospital and you're waiting for the big emotional reveal to be that Jack and William actually met and had a big "This Is Us" Important Conversation in the chapel while Jack's freaking out about Rebecca giving birth.
Thankfully, the show declines that all-too-tidy moment; the two merely pass each other as they both take turns praying alone – Jack even going as far as to call his distant father to find out what it was he was praying so intently about when he was a child. So what's the end goal of this segment then? After all, the episode wasn't lacking in other storylines that could've used the time. (Hell, I could've used the extra time for a bonus commercial break to catch my breath from all the new developments piling up like Randall's work schedule.) And what's the twist? Is it something involving Rebecca and the poison ivy? Or maybe Toby discovers Miguel is actually made of cake?!
As it turns out, Randall's mother may not be dead.
William assumed she died in the past, hearing the paramedics essentially call a time of death before running away so he wouldn't have to face the police and Social Services. But after he left, Laurel came gasping back to life – cut to black, cut to a preview to the next episode two weeks from now.
It's a big shocking reveal – though one that should sound pretty shockingly familiar too. After all, this is essentially the Nicky twist take two, an old unknown relative who turns out to be secretly alive this entire time. It's a dangerous enough to bust out the same twist twice – much less one that's dangerously soapy and melodramatic, potentially undercutting the drama of the show by constantly resurrecting new characters unless you've seen the casket put into the ground. But "This Is Us" pulled it off impressively with Nicky, turning what could've been a shark-jumping moment into one of the better plotlines in recent seasons, one that was not only compelling in its own right but made a lead – Kevin – a better, richer character in the process.
Now they've got a whole season to prove they can do it twice.
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.