This Is Us tells the story of four stressed-out fathers

·7 min read
Photo:  Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

What makes This Is Us special is its ability to take something that seems like it should be the worst kind of sitcom-y storytelling—in this case a Siri-related texting mishap that lets a dad hear about his teenage daughter’s sex life—and turn it into something genuinely thoughtful and moving. While the protective dad/rebellious daughter dynamics that are at play in this week’s Randall/Deja throughline are probably broadly relatable for a lot of parents and teens, This Is Us elevates the formula by leaning into the specificity of Randall and Deja’s situation.

Of course, it’s only natural that Randall would freak out upon learning that his teenage daughter secretly took a multi-hour bus ride to visit her boyfriend out of state. But with some help from Beth, he’s able to zero in on the extra layer at play here too: Deja joined the Pearson family when she was 12 years old, already on the verge of heading into her teen years. Randall feels a sense of loss that he missed out on her earlier childhood. He wants her to stay frozen in amber to make up for that time and it’s going to take some effort on his part to switch that mindset, as he explains in an incredibly moving moment of humble, empathetic parenting.

Read more

From Deja’s perspective, however, her sometimes tumultuous childhood with her mom and her even more tumultuous time in the foster care system gave her a greater sense of independence than a lot of kids her age. While some teens might have counted their blessings about getting off “easy” for such a major transgression, Deja refuses to back down when Randall says she won’t be allowed to see Malik for a while. Though This Is Us lets that tension go unresolved for now, it’s aided by the specificity and empathy the show extends to both halves of its father/daughter pairing—and to Beth, who’s one of many moms who get a moment to shine in this father-centric episode.

Specificity is also key to why the Jack/Rebecca flashbacks tend to work so well. They find their strength in the small, relatable details of childhood: The phone number written inside Kevin’s shoe. The joy of eating whipped cream directly out of the can. The way Jack and Rebecca flip their usual dynamic so that she’s the calm, confident one and he’s frazzled and insecure. Full-time stay-at-home parenting is her domain and when Jack takes it on for an afternoon of Big Three movie-going, he comes to realize just what a non-stop job it actually is.

Photo:  Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

In contrast, the Kevin and Kate throughlines often suffer because of their lack of specificity. For instance, I’m baffled by Kevin and Madison’s current custody arrangement and by the show’s refusal to clarify the issue. Do the twins live full-time with Madison, and Kevin just visits them there? Or do they split their time 50/50 between both parents? Plus whatever happened to that magic nanny that Madison couldn’t stop raving about back in “I’ve Got This”?

The lack of detail makes it hard to tell exactly what Kevin is frustrated about here. In the broadest strokes, he’s obviously (and understandably) bummed that he won’t get the perfect nuclear family of his dreams. But is work keeping him away from his scheduled time with his kids? Or is he bristling over a custody arrangement he feels favors Madison? Certainly crashing at Kate and Toby’s place isn’t a sign of a man who’s ready to raise two kids on his on. But, on the other hand, if Madison is the one who objectively spends more time with the twins, her brusque “we’ll both miss things in their lives!” response to Kevin’s sadness feels kind of cruel.

Photo:  Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

There’s good stuff within the Kevin storyline too. His decision to reach out to Cassidy rather than call up his 25-year-old co-star for a booty call is a welcome swerve (and a nice echo of a similar moment in the second season episode “Number One”). And it’s fun to see him navigate being back on a sitcom set in a whole new role. Plus his scene with Toby about the strengths of squares and triangles was sweet. It just feels like a storyline about co-parenting and time management needs to be rooted in the specifics of those detail-oriented topics.

The Kate stuff fares a bit better this week. It’s not exactly riveting, per se, but it finds a nice, empathetic way to explore the story of a couple doing their best in a difficult situation. It’s also a great example of the benefit this show gets from its time-hopping premise. In any other season, this would’ve just been yet another annoying Kate/Toby rift that’s too easily healed by a grand gesture. Now that we know their marriage doesn’t last, however, there’s an interesting tension to seeing them try to navigate their relationship stresses in the present.

We also get the introduction of the Ominous Smoker—the barbecue device that Toby buys to bring his family together but which we learn will eventually become the source of a traumatizing first memory for Baby Jack, who still has flashbacks to it as an adult in the far future. (Between this and the Crock Pot, the Pearsons should just stay away from all slow cooking devices, huh?) While it’s a bit of a goofy, over-the-top tease, it at least ties into the central thesis of the Jack/Rebecca storyline: You never know what you’ll remember a day for until it’s over.

Photo:  Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The day Toby throws a barbecue for his family is going to become the day his marriage ends, just as the day Jack lost Kevin at the mall became the day the Pearson family had a sundae movie marathon became the day Jack’s mom died. That somber ending is fitting for an episode that’s as much about motherhood as fatherhood. And since we don’t know much about Jack’s relationship with his mom—particularly after he married Rebecca and started his own family—that should hopefully leave next week’s episode with plenty of complicated specificity to introduce.

Stray observations

  • I can’t decide if this is an intentional timeline twist or just a continuity error, but last week Uncle Nicky talked about going back East to help Rebecca’s “meathead son” break ground on the new cabin. But here Kevin doesn’t seem to have any plans involving the cabin?

  • It was quite a gamble for This Is Us to introduce Phillip so late into the show’s run, but the way he spins what seems like a cynical rant about his ex-wife into a sweet, positive point of view for Kate was a really, really nice character beat for him.

  • I’m both proud and embarrassed by how quickly I recognized the Big Three’s first movie as An American Tail based on a few lines of dialogue.

  • I feel like child Randall should’ve been way more anxious when Kevin left that movie theater, and adult Randall should’ve been way more anxious while teaching Deja to drive.

  • Justin Hartley and Caitlin Thompson have a great moment of physical comedy where they drink from the wrong coffee mugs and then silently switch them.

  • I loved that plaid dress Kate was wearing during the present opening scene!

  • Has This Is Us used Cat Stevens’ “Father And Son” before? Or does it just feel like a song the show should’ve used a million times by now?