Tuesday, September 20, 2016

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Jack, Kate, Kevin and Randall Celebrate Some Very Pivotal Birthdays in 'Pilot'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

This refreshingly honest and provocative series follows a unique ensemble. As their paths cross and their life stories intertwine in curious ways, we find that several of them share the same birthday and so much more than anyone would expect.

Obviously, the twist at the end of the This Is Us premiere is the most important thing about the show in this first hour. The reveal that Jack and Rebecca are actually the parents to Kevin, Kate and Randall is the big connection that brings all of these stories together. It completely reshapes every single detail that happens in this premiere. It's an exciting twist. It's also one that you can spot right away once you know you're looking for it. The period details are subtle throughout Jack and Rebecca's story. But they are there. In fact, their first scene has a box that says "Family Photos '75-'79." If this is Jack's 36th birthday, it wouldn't make any sense for them to have that box. It's little details like that that become more apparent upon re-watch. And yet, the overall effect of the show isn't lessened or strengthened by the reveal. It provides more clarity. But the various stories were working long before it happened. And more than likely, they will continue to work in the future as well. Perhaps the focus will be even greater on the actual stories too considering the twist has already been revealed.

It's the 36th birthday for four characters in the premiere - Jack, Kevin, Kate and Randall. All of them are in wildly different places in their lives. That's the main thrust of this hour. Jack is in the hospital with the birth of his children. He's officially starting a family with Rebecca. Meanwhile, Randall already has a family and a successful career. And now, he's finally reaching out to his biological father. He doesn't know why or how he should react to seeing him. And then, Kate and Kevin are both going through some existential crises. Kate feels pathetic because she's overweight and hasn't done anything to accomplish any of her dreams while Kevin feels like his talents are being wasted on the TV show that has helped launch his career. All of these characters are at the age where these issues are a pinnacle part of their lives. They are slowly getting older. What used to be fine is no longer the case.

Jack and Rebecca had the dream of coming home from the hospital with three healthy babies. That was the life they pictured for themselves. Jack didn't want anything to get in the way of that plan or his traditions. Despite her size, he still wants Rebecca to honor his birthday tradition of sex. Of course, the labor ruins those plans. More importantly, complications with the pregnancy ruin the larger plans for this family. One of the babies was stillborn. The other two - Kate and Kevin - are perfectly fine as is Rebecca. But it's still a heartbreaking moment for Jack because he only has two. He pictured a life with three children. And now, he'll have to adjust. It's something he is capable of doing. Gerald McRaney has a pretty great scene-stealing performance in this episode. His monologue to Jack about the baby he lost and how it made him a better father and doctor is beautiful. It's inspiring to Jack. He really takes ahold of that lesson and applies it to his own parenting. He lost a baby but he found a new one in Randall who was left at a fire station and brought to the hospital. He wanted to come home from the hospital with three babies. And that's exactly what he did. It's different than how he was expecting. But it's still just as special.

The grown siblings are struggling though. Randall seemingly has a great life. He has a strong family unit with two daughters of his own. Sure, they are different from one another. One is a gifted athlete and the other braids hair on the field. But he's still proud of the life he has made. It's clear that he had a solid upbringing. And yet, he is searching for his biological father. He was left at a fire station. He was abandoned and wanted to show off his great life in spite of how it all began. He did go to William's apartment to say "screw you" and walk out the door. That's what he wants to do. And yet, it's not what he actually does. He does say it at one point but it's not the end of their story together. William doesn't offer up any profound explanation for what he did. In fact, he barely even remembers that day. Nor does he need Randall's help in getting sober or affording a place to live. William doesn't need anything from Randall and vice versa. They have this biological connection but that's it. They don't need anything from the other. But Randall does give. He brings William home for him to meet his family. And William gives as well. He shares the truth that he is dying. It's unclear where this story possibly goes next. But it is clear that William will be a part of Randall and Beth's lives for the foreseeable future.

Kate and Kevin's relationship is never explicitly hidden like the rest of the family bonds. It's early in the hour when the audience learns that they are twins. She fell while on the scale and Kevin helps bandage her up. It's clear the two of them have a strong relationship. Hopefully, the same is also true when Randall is thrown into the mix. Of course, that's a mystery for the next few episodes. Here, it's because of Kevin that Kate feels motivated to start losing the weight. It's because of Kate that Kevin starts to feel like he deserves more from his job. The Manny is obviously a big show. It's a part of these characters' lives. Now, it's clear that's true because they are related to the star. But during the middle stretch of the episode when Kevin has his big on-set meltdown in front of Alan Thicke, it feels like a big deal because he's walking away from a recognizable and popular show. He wants to tackle something that actually has some depth to it. He wants something more real and genuine. Right now, all he has is his sister. He has nothing else in his life that he's proud of. The Manny is just a job for him. But it's not rewarding at all. That's what leads him to quitting. It's a pretty epic moment too - especially when it comes to him complaining about the prop suitcase not having anything inside of it. This could be a huge mistake for Kevin. He won't know for sure until he sees what else is out there for him.

Meanwhile, Kate wanting to lose the weight is a good thing for her. She's very self-conscious about her appearance. This is the story that doesn't come together as well as the other ones do. Kate is either being defined by her weight or her connection to Kevin. Whenever he pops up, he takes attention away from her because he makes his problems into being much bigger things. Kate's journey is just as important as his is. She knows that she needs to make a change. It's just very difficult for her because food tastes so good. She has a blooming romance as well. She makes a connection with Toby at an overeaters anonymous meeting. She likes him because he crosses the line. Nowhere in this premiere is it seen that Kate enjoys being over the line too like she claims. So, this connection isn't all that great. It fact, it's really off-putting seeing Toby work his way into Kate's house after their first date. It's not really that charming or in keeping with the tone the show is going for. So, this could be a case of the show believing in this relationship more than the audience is invested in it. That could be a major problem down the road. But again, it's really the only slight problem that's in this first episode.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Dan Fogelman and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra.
  • Of course, Alan Thicke would be cast to play Kevin's sitcom dad. That's just a role that he is frequently asked to do. He's the aloof father who didn't know how to connect to his kid. This show twists the premise around a little bit though with Alan Thicke playing himself while caught in this chaotic situation.
  • Is Kevin the only actor on The Manny? That seems unlikely. And yet, he is the only regular who is actually seen. There are babies on the set. But the entire premise of the show revolves around him. Though I just don't understand how a joke about a man trying to breastfeed a baby is funny in 2016.
  • Sterling K. Brown is fresh off of an Emmy win. That moment where he bursts into uncontrollable laughter because he doesn't understand anything he has done with William is fantastic and so unexpected. It is slightly weird but in a good way.
  • McRaney is a great part of this premiere. So, it really is wonderful that the show has confirmed he'll continue to appear throughout the season. Jack needs a guy to give him uplifting monologues about life.
  • At times, Rebecca and Beth are just reacting to what their men are doing in any particular scene. Hopefully that changes in the future because Mandy Moore and Susan Kelechi Watson are great performers as well.
  • The trailer for This Is Us went viral after the Upfronts in May. Some say it was because of Milo Ventimiglia's nudity. And yet, I'm still so surprising that that shot was included in the final edit. NBC is really trying to push the boundaries this year.