"This Is Us" recap: Now that we know how Jack died ... how did Jack die?
I'll admit that I was reluctant to fall into "This Is Us," NBC's hit tear-jerking dramedy. All the talk of gigantic cry sessions in every episode and huge mind-blowing ending reveals in almost as many threw out an overzealous referee's amount of flags. "This Is Us" was all about tricks and manipulation, and I, raising my snobby nose proudly into the air, was not going to be fooled.
Cut to me, one quickly binge-watched season later, and my snobby nose is now a snotty nose, no longer raised but submerged into a mess of teary Kleenex. Count me amongst the happily manipulated.
For better or worse, "This Is Us" is a masterfully calculated cry machine – even when your guard is up. In fact, it's better when your guard is up because then creator Dan Fogelman tends to cleverly subvert your expectations and give you an undercutting laugh instead of a slap to the tear ducts. Or a punch instead of a slap. And even when it works too hard to for those tears – some of the storylines, as we'll get into, are consistently better than others, and the twinkly music still sounds like somebody constantly auditioning to be the next Iron & Wine – the performers are there to reel it in and ground it. Or at least Sterling K. Brown is.
All of that is still the same going into season two – complete with one of the big mysteries of the past season seemingly answered. A little.
After 42 minutes of dropping in on everybody's progress (or lack thereof), "A Father's Advice" drops a bomb of a scene: teenage Kate and Randall crying at Miguel's house, Kevin making out with a girl none the wiser and Rebecca shellshocked and then sobbing, pulling up to the freshly charred remains of their house with Jack's personal items in a cold plastic bag. It would seem Jack passed away in a fire that devastated their family home – though, knowing this show, this could all be an impressive juke out. Hell, it probably is. But for the time being, we now know how Jack died.
Now we just need to figure out HOW Jack died.
Right now, "This Is Us" has shown us the end carnage of this Rube Goldberg machine of sorrow, all serving as clues. What do the Steelers have to do with all of this – Rebecca is wearing the team's shirt, and Kate obviously had a major connection to Jack and the Steelers? Speaking of Kate, where'd she get that dog? And how'd Kevin break his leg? And Randall has a girlfriend now? The rest of the season will almost certainly rewind a piece these parts together, and some are certain to feel dragged along the way. That's the tricky part with a show built around so many reveals and mysteries: After a while, you have to keep coming up with new ones and better answers (ask "Lost").
The good news for "This Is Us" is that the writing thus far has been clever enough to keep audiences off-balance while never resorting too much to cheap tricks or unearned moments. And even when the moments are unearned, the performances pick up the slack. The end scene, for instance, was a showcase scene for Milo Ventimiglia, playing a drunk, sad and broken man verbally vomiting up his secret shame without overplaying any of those hands – and helping make Mandy Moore's persistence in that moment, knocking on the door and pleasing for him to come back home, hit the heart. And then help that final scene break it.
Ventimiglia – and Moore, who's also good and still sparks incredibly well with her co-stars, even when under a respectable mess of age makeup in the later years – merit a mention because Sterling K. Brown gets much of the spotlight and awards buzz (he's just coming off of an Emmy win two weekends ago). And understandably so; he's very good on "This Is Us," hitting the smaller nuances and humor inside the show's big, broad emotions.
And smartly, the show's honed in on his story, the one with the most meat on it as well as the most unique, over the show's run – including last night's premiere, which was about two-thirds about Randall's adoption dilemma with Beth, who's less and less convinced adoption is the next best step for the family despite Randall's pleasant insistence and eagerness (the first shot is him cradling a baby ... the neighbors' baby, and they would like it back, please).
Their push-pull relationship – of when to nudge forward and when the reign in, when to fight, when to stay back and where to find the middle ground – is the sun in which the rest of the show's characters and subplots comfortably orbit, including a surprise flashback visit from the dearly departed William (whose voiceover poems also provide the opening and closing bookends for the episode).
Unfortunately, those other orbiting subplots still have a hard time competing with the impressive gravity of Randall's storyline, both in terms of screen time and in terms of interest or import. All celebrating their 37th birthday, we find Kate in this premiere about to pursue her dream of singing, auditioning for a singing role in a band. She loses her nerve surrounded by skinny wannabe songbirds and walks out, before coming back in just the knick of time ... only to be told no.
She assumes her weight is the problem, but no, as the group's former singer shows, she's just not that good. It's a bit of a circular story for Kate, putting her close to where she started ... at the end of last season ... last March. Other than the turn at the end of realizing she has to step up her game, it's a pretty standard storyline.
But it's more to do than Kevin, who's mostly just there for a bit about The Worst Toby getting upset that she's more open with her brother than with her fiancee. Which ... yeah, buddy. Siblings – especially twins – will always be closely bonded, and you don't get exclusive rights to another person. So yeah, Toby still sucks – the best part of the show was when he got blue-balled – and hopefully season two stops trying to convince the audience he's charming.
Kevin also gets Ron Howard to wish him a happy birthday, predicts the incoming onslaught of Kardashian spin-offs, I mean babies, and his girlfriend comes out to be with him for his birthday. So yeah, not much going on here (though if he's in our world, right now, being directed by Ron Howard, is he in the new Han Solo movie?!). "This Is Us" has often struggled to make the other two sides of The Big Three have the same emotional heft of Randall's, and season two doesn't quite solve that.
But it has an entire new season to try.
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