Tuesday, October 18, 2016

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Randall & William Deal with Racism While Kevin Struggles in His Move to Broadway in 'The Pool'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 1.04 "The Pool"

Rebecca and Jack take the kids to the pool on a hot day and quickly realize each child is going through their own struggles. Kevin auditions for his first Broadway play and meets an actress who is less than impressed by him. Toby runs into his ex-wife, which sends Kate into a spiral of self-doubt. William is mistakenly reported as a loiterer in Randall's predominately white neighborhood, which exposes deep-rooted issues of race.

This Is Us has had a solid run of episodes so far. And yet, they've started to fall into a pattern with the storytelling. It's not bad at all. The foundational work for all of the stories is still incredibly strong. But the show has become expected in a number of ways as well. Every week, the audience can expect Rebecca and Jack to struggle with raising three kids, Randall not knowing how to react to William, Kevin becoming excited about something only to be crippled by self-doubt and Kate being obsessed with her weight. Again, all of these stories have value to the show and the characters. And yet, things are starting to become a little one note and predictable as well. Stability is a good thing for shows. There needs to be a core foundation for every character that the audience can easily understand. This Is Us has packed a couple of great surprise twists as well. But the main thrust of each individual story is starting to become too formulaic. This show doesn't need to reveal some shocking piece of information in every episode. It still gets a ton of great mileage out of characters sitting down and having conversations. But it would be a little more exciting if the dynamics were shaken up just a little bit.

Of all the stories, Randall's is easily the best. It was a clear highlight at the start of the series. More importantly though, it has remained strong throughout the next few episodes. Here, the show truly digs into the complicated racial politics at play in Randall's upbringing. He lives in an upscale, white neighborhood. He has the kind of job where he can provide for his family like this. He still comes from humbler beginnings. Jack and Rebecca didn't have a house like his. However, he did grow up in a predominately white neighborhood in Pittsburgh as well. Randall hasn't had a traditional black struggle. That doesn't mean he has never encountered racism though. He and his father, William, have grown up in different worlds. They've really bonded over the last few episodes. And yet, there are still surprises from William's past that are still being revealed. Just a few years after Randall was born, William was working in housing development trying to help underprivileged people get into affordable apartments. He has the battle scars from a life in service fighting against an oppressive society. It's a story that's ultimately about how Randall and William see the world differently. It doesn't focus too much on the prospect of William being clean and healthy for much longer than it originally seemed. That's good because the audience already knows William didn't come looking for Randall because Rebecca asked him not to.

So instead, Randall introduces William to his version of race in America. Randall doesn't see the need to speak out and cause a scene. He sees racism every day of his life. But he doesn't think his complaining will do anything to change that. He doesn't need to create a big spectacle for the rest of the world to see. That wouldn't be setting a good example for his daughters. He wants them to have an even better upbringing than he did. He never wants them to think it's unique that they are playing Snow White in the school play. The rest of the world knows how big a deal that really is. It's somewhat sloppily touched upon though. Were the parents at this school just going to be laughing throughout this entire play just because a black girl is Snow White? That happens solely to get a point across. It's not subtle in any way whatsoever. But again, it doesn't matter to the girls because it's their big debut in the play. They are proud of what they were able to do while Beth and William just watch with so much joy. Randall is the one who sees the world for how horrible it can be. He just accepts that. He has a personal connection to this world. He doesn't create a scene earlier when William gets into trouble because he knows the people of this neighborhood. He knows that they are just confused and don't know any better. All of this is just really powerful setup for that final conversation between Randall and William were they discuss the importance of being a role model. Randall had a good and happy upbringing. But he's still looking for that fatherly connection with William. He's still trying to uncover the life that could have been. It was lost for so many years. And now, it's found. William is sorry it took this long. But he's here now.

And so is Kevin. Randall's house is starting to get very crowded with people. "The Pool" ends with Kevin showing up at the door hoping to crash there for a couple of nights. It shows that Kevin really does retreat to a family connection whenever he doubts himself. It's a part of a pattern that has been apparent for his entire life. He's always seeking the admiration and approval of others. He needs this move to New York to work because it's what his career has led to. This is his only hope of work for the next two years. Broadway is the only option for him. The Manny can no longer happen. Kevin was able to put in the work to be good at playing the manny. But now, he's scared of the unknown. He loves this play that he's auditioning for. The show works overly hard to sell the excellence of this play while only providing a brief glimpse of the actual material. It's much more important that Kevin may not be cut out for the theater life after all. He can't just start over when a line reading doesn't work like he hoped. This is a new acting muscle for him. He says he's not like the movie people who come to Broadway in search of something real. He wants to put in the work. But this is a whole new world of possibilities that terrify him. It's a new job that he has no idea how to do. He still gets the part. The producers hope his presence will increase ticket sales. He's in the zeitgeist right now. This play could capitalize on that. But that doesn't mean Kevin's ready to make this leap into theater.

So of course, Kevin runs away to Randall's house. He is the closest family member to him right now. The actress already attached to the play, Olivia Maine, is Tony nominated and knows how to succeed in this world. She knows that Kevin is in over his heard. She's furious when she gets the call that he got the part. She has an opinion that's being silenced just because Kevin is a name celebrity. She believes this incredible work will be ruined through his casting. He's not ready for this experience. His naivety will prove to be a huge complication throughout the whole process. Kevin has always been crippled by self-doubt. He has always felt like the odd man out. He doesn't believe he's special. That's partly because of his upbringing. Jack and Rebecca are constantly overwhelmed by their children. They always have to keep an eye on Randall and Kate to make sure he's not being picked on for being a black kid in a white family and that her weight isn't keeping her from doing whatever she wants. Those are serious concerns. They can overshadow Kevin at times though. He almost drowns during the family trip to the pool in the past. Jack and Rebecca weren't watching him. He's the normal kid who isn't suppose to have any problems. His parents are doing their best. But he just slipped away from them. Kevin needs his family in order to feel comfortable and confident. He always had that with Kate no matter what. But now, he's all alone in a new city. The fears are greater than they've ever been before. So, it's not surprising he retreats to this familiar comfort. Staying with Randall will be different than confiding with Kate. But it could represent a new way to tell stories for the next few episodes.

Meanwhile, Kate's story falls flat a little bit. It does a nice job of fleshing out Toby's character some more. He has been seen as the comic relief character in the first three episodes. And now, it's great to get some backstory on him as well. Kate has struggled with weight her entire life. It has been a huge definer in everything that she does. With Toby, he became overweight after his marriage failed. His x-wife was horrible to him and he put on a hundred pounds because of it. It pushed him to the brink of suicide. That's a dark place to take the character to. It makes it even more special when he's upbeat and charming to Kate. However, too much of this story is based on Kate's insecurities. After seeing Toby's ex-wife, Kate freaks out about that not being Toby's type of women. She no longer trusts this relationship. She needs to know the truth and all she discovers is a wonderful human being. Of course, it's a bit too sitcom-y with Kate stalking Toby's ex-wife online and then getting a job at her store. Kate's story needs to be about something new and unique to her. Right now, too much of it is being defined by the people around her and not her.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Pool" was written by Dan Fogelman & Donald Todd and directed by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra.
  • It's pretty amusing to watch Jack and Rebecca struggling with whether or not Randall needs sunscreen. It highlights the different ways black and white bodies react to certain elements. But now, Jack and Rebecca won't have to worry any longer because they have a new black friend who can teach them everything they need to know.
  • Jack really can be a great father when he's committed to it. That speech he gives to young Kate about his shirt with magical powers is amazing. He knows how hard life is for her. He wants to make it better for her. This shirt is the only comfort he can provide though.
  • It really is so tense watching young Kevin swim to the deep end of the pool and struggle to stay above the water. He's desperate for attention but no one seems to see him in his time of need. Not even the lifeguards do anything even though it's pretty clear that he's almost drowning.
  • Kevin tells Olivia that he's from Pittsburgh originally but that he doesn't have any family there anymore. So that only adds more questions to what Jack and Rebecca are up to in the present. Rebecca has been seen but Jack has not.
  • Even William liked The Manny. After meeting Kevin, he wants to go get his autograph book. And yet, how did it take this long for William to realize Randall's brother was on The Manny? There's pictures and posters all over the house.
  • So is Kate going to keep this job or not? She needs one right now. But working for Toby's ex-wife would just be way too complicated.
  • Hey, Randall can solve a rubix cube.