"This Is Us" recap: The Pearsons have their day in court
Something's wrong with this world. I know because, in Tuesday night's episode of "This Is Us," the stuff involving Toby was some of the most enjoyable material of the hour. THIS IS NOT NORMAL; DO NOT NORMALIZE THIS.
Not that the episode was all that bad – and not that the Toby stuff was all that brilliant – but most of "The Most Disappointed Man in the World" involved the Pearsons dealing with the legal system in some way or another, and while the results were involving, I don't think a show like "This Is Us" is the most equipped to take on big, serious, important issues with nuance and tact (see also: the racist mom episode).
It gets a little melodramatic, a little contrived, maybe a little too cute and definitely too reliant on big speeches. The show is too nice to get its hands really messy with these topics – which, again, doesn't make the episode bad, just not as impactful as when it's simply diving into the safer confines of family drama.
Thus, we have an episode where Toby was not just tolerable but truly enjoyable. What a world.
In the past plotline, the Pearsons head to the courthouse to officially bring baby Randall into the Big Three. Their social worker loves them all – even when Rebecca comes down the steps yelling about one of the babies biting off her nipple – and gives them raves, so the hearing should be a piece of cake. They even get some new family photos at the department store photo booth to make it official.
Except the judge – hi Delroy Lindo! – won't join in on the fun. While their social worker says the process should be easy, just an oath or two and a few general proclamations of purpose, the judge insists on having a real proper hearing about the adoption. When the Pearsons conveniently find the judge outside and ask what the deal is with their case, he explains: He doesn't believe baby Randall belongs with a white family that he believes won't be prepared for the burden of properly raising a black child, with all of the tough questions and lessons that may include.
They'll still have their hearing, eventually, but he says he's not changing his mind ... except of course he changes his mind, because, duh, Randall ends up a Pearson and this is "This Is Us," the nicest show on television next to the Hallmark Channel. So after a sweet letter and a cute photo from Rebecca, Judge Delroy Lindo takes himself off the case and gives it to a colleague who breezes the Pearsons through as they expected in the first place.
Meanwhile, even further in the past, Ron Cephas Jones's always welcome William is in court too – for far less celebratory reasons. His younger version, played by Jermel Nakia, has been picked up, and the judge (Bernard from "Lost"!) is disappointed – not as disappointed, though, as William who's faced with a broken life after losing his significant other, his job, his child and everything else in between. He's behind bars, but after stern dueling speeches, the judge lets him off the hook, seeing this is a good man not worth cruelly punishing for brutal circumstances. And William keeps his word to stay away from the stuff, haunted by the judge's kindness ... until the news of cancer hits and he relents to his addiction once again as an older man. Or at least, that was the plan until Randall came knocking at the door in the series finale all those episodes ago. MILD TWIST!
Speaking of Randall, in modern times, he brings Deja to visit her mother in prison ... only Deja's mother declines the visit at the last minute, when a quietly optimistic Deja is already there in the waiting room in her mother's favorite dress and with allowance to offer in aid. Randall and the social worker (Debra Jo Rupp, of "That '70s Show" fame, flexing her dramatic muscles here) have a few words, with him wondering what the system is really doing for this child while she retorts with all of the other cruel cases placed on her desk, before they head back home disappointed.
Randall, however, comes back to have his say to Deja's mom – who reveals herself to be badly beaten after getting jumped in prison. She doesn't intend on losing her daughter to Randall's family, and she doesn't appreciate Randall's smug approach to her, noting she didn't choose to be behind bars and away from her daughter. But Randall doesn't flinch in the conversation either; a fight is brewing here, and while he grants her phone calls with Deja, I doubt it's over.
While the legal battle is likely just starting there, "The Most Disappointed Man in the World" has plenty of courtroom conflict for one episode – and that's not even including Toby's mom and her daily love of "Judge Judy." And while it's all commendable and, as always, extremely well acted, it feels just a bit shallow.
Save for the Randall subplot, which asks tougher questions and appears to be just starting, the rest of the legal battles seem to wrap up just a little tidy, with a big melodramatic speech to save the day all set. And while that's not completely the case with William's story, it's one of the times I wish we had more time there (and less time, say, with Kevin, which *sigh* more on him later) to give his struggle with addiction more weight than just a miraculously lenient judge speech and a brief montage scene.
Plus, while the show seems to be trying to say something about inequality and how the legal system tilts in ways one has no control over – at least definitely with the speech from Deja's mom and the judges having no idea if they've done right – the show's general niceness makes that point a little blurred, especially when the two other court cases are neatly wrapped up by big writerly soliloquies. None of it was bad, mind you, just not particularly impactful. "This Is Us" is a show designed for big, easy and obvious feels – whether sad or happy – and legal conflicts (and racial components) like the ones here are just a little too complicated for this show's simple heart-tugging tactics to convey.
Kate and Toby getting married, on the other hand? Right in the wheelhouse! After very cutely announcing to Kevin (*sighs again*) their exciting baby news with some novelty T-shirts, the next name on their list is Toby's mom, who Toby is NOT excited to call. She's clearly a hardcore Christian and spazzed that they were merely living together before marriage, much less having a child out of wedlock.
The obvious solution? Get hitched!
So the two head to the courthouse to sign a paper and get a hassle-free marriage ("Whoosh? Is that the sound a marriage makes?"), but Toby can't help but feel Kate is selling herself short. After all, she loves weddings and is addicted to "Say Yes To the Dress" to the point of taking notes. So with the help of a lot of hoodies (like ... so many hoodies) he proposes to her and tells her that if she wants a quick courthouse wedding, that's fine, but he really wants to give her the big, grand wedding she's truly wanted too. And gosh if it isn't charming, sweet and wonderful.
Yes, every line Toby speaks in this episode is still exhaustingly a gag, but the jokes are actually funny this time instead of just ridiculously oafish or quietly overbearing – or involving "Flashdance" recreations. Plus, it's him truly doing something for Kate and her needs and wants rather than being pushy for his own sake. And when Toby gets past the hoodies and gets serious on the proposal, he nails the landing. See, cute and cuddly emotions? Right in the "This Is Us" strike zone.
Also, fun fact, remember the restaurant owner from "Stranger Things" season one who helps out Elle and gets murdered by lab goons for his kindness? That was Toby!
Lastly, that brings us to Kevin who ... *sighs for a third time*. You know, I was actually looking forward to the Kevin drug addiction subplot because it seemed like it might give the Manny some actual meat to his comparatively thin storyline. But a few episodes in, I've tired of it. Why did we bring Sophie back just to predictably and halfheartedly dump her in these quick few episodes between the annoying gala plot two weeks ago and now tonight with Kevin getting hit with parenting fears thanks to popping pills and alcohol and – gasp! – CHIPS AHOY (things must be rough for Kevin if he's resorting to that chocolate-chip-speckled drywall).
Crappy cookies aside, the self-destructive drug addiction material is getting monotonous and cliche (we're just waiting for this to get to the Jack and Kevin death younger years reveals, right?) while the Sophie storyline was barely touched on this year save for when it was falling apart in trite, cheaply predictable ways. And so the breakup felt lamely, frustratingly inevitable and empty rather than something really built up to and earned. Why put in all the effort into this Sophie storyline for just this result – and why would Sophie go back to Kevin after this, which is almost certainly where it'll go from here? What viewer will really want that for her character?
During the breakup, Kevin calls himself an "empty shell" – and unfortunately the show hasn't provided a lot of quality arguments to the contrary. And it's a bummer. Sly Stallone would be sad.
This Is Sadness rankings
A pretty dry-eyed episode tonight – the speeches were all nice, but Mandy's card to the judge had nothing on last week's beautiful episode-capper, the Randall jail visit was too complex for tears and Kevin's breakup with Sophie was too annoying to be really sad. Unexpected hero Toby and that marriage proposal did get me a little misty, though maybe it was just because I was proud to see Toby not be THE WORST for an episode. So, in tribute to Toby, I give this a Simpsons Characters Tearfully Admiring From A Distance:
So, like a three out of 10.
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