Tuesday, October 25, 2016

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Kate Reveals Where Jack Is in the Present Day in 'The Game Plan'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 1.05 "The Game Plan"

Rebecca and Jack get into an argument about starting a family. The family backstory behind the long line of love for the Pittsburgh Steelers is revealed. After accepting his part in the play, Kevin realizes his script is relevant to his own life. Randall and Beth encounter an unexpected turn of events.

Where is Jack? It's a question This Is Us purposefully set up for itself. In the beginning, there were questions about where Jack and Rebecca were in the present day. Their stories largely take place in the past to help highlight the thematic connection amongst the rest of the stories. And then, Rebecca showed up on Randall's doorstep in 2016 married to Jack's best friend, Miguel. It was from that moment that audiences started questioning where Jack was in the present day. It's not the sole source of mystery and tension on the show. It's not the central question that everything else revolves around. There is still so much in these characters' lives that the audience doesn't know about yet. The big revealing moments can play as shocking twists meant to reshape how everything is viewed before that moment. But it can also be just as satisfying to watch a low key reveal of the twist. That's exactly what this mystery does. It's clearly something important to the show. It doesn't tease things out for too long. "The Game Plan" reveals that Jack is dead. Kate has his ashes at her place. It's this weird and awkward moment that she shares with Toby to explain her passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a sweet and genuine moment between two people who like each other while also informing the greater story of this entire family. It was subtle information but one that introduces a bunch of new questions. When did Jack die? How did he die? Was his drinking to blame? Did Rebecca marry Miguel before or after Jack died? These are important questions. But they don't necessarily need to be answered any time soon either.

Of course, the parallel stories that reveal this crucial information are pretty lackluster and lame. "The Game Plan " reveals a passion for football throughout this whole family. It's a way they were all able to bond together. But it's largely just important for Kate, Jack and Rebecca here. It's a way they feel close as a family while also making sure their lives are better than the previous generation. And yet, it is just way too melodramatic and forced to be all that effective emotionally. Jack and Rebecca aren't able to enjoy the Super Bowl together because they are in a fight about whether they want to have kids. It's an important theme throughout the rest of the episode. Randall and Beth deal with a pregnancy scare while Kevin actually has to be a parent to his nieces. But it's just an awkwardly handled story. It's all just building to the reveal that this is actually the night where Kevin and Kate were conceived. Jack and Rebecca decided they just needed the other in their lives in order to be happy. They fought about kids. And then, boom! They conceived three of them because they were so excited. That's just a little too melodramatic and plot focused to work all that well. It simplifies the issue down to one episode. It's one story amongst four in an hour of TV. That's just not a lot of time to actual be subtle about things which doesn't ultimately work with this reveal.

It also puts an importance on football for the lives of the children. Kevin and Randall couldn't care less that it's football Sunday and the Steelers are playing in Sunday Night Football. They are too distracted by other things to care all that much in 2016. But it's still a big deal to Kate. It reveals a closeness to her father that is special. It's an awkward story because there really isn't a whole lot to it. Kate enjoys just watching the games at home all alone. Toby thinks that's weird and invites her over to watch the game with him and a friend. But during the actual party, it's never really about the game. Toby couldn't care less and the other guy is just along for the ride not really into it either. Again, there isn't a clear source of conflict or story here. It just sets up the big monologue for Kate to talk about why football means so much to her. It is a great speech. Chrissy Metz delivers it with so much passion and emotion. This is a big deal to her because it's a way for her to still bond with her father. Their relationship was special. This is how she connects with him even though he is no longer alive. Sure, she doesn't use those words until she walks over and grabs the urn with his ashes. That's a reveal that happens after the big speech. But it's still an effective reveal that teases that there is still so much history in this family that the audience doesn't know about. The show is revealing plenty of information with each episode. But those reveals only set up new mysteries and dynamics amongst the characters.

Elsewhere, it is amusing to watch Kevin have to be the responsible adult for once. He's staying with Randall and Beth now while rehearsals have started for his new play. He lets his brother take his hotel room for the night for a life away from the stress of kids. Kevin played a manny on TV but that doesn't mean he's actually any good with kids. William has been around the girls for the last few weeks. He has a stronger grasp on what they like and can handle. But it's still primarily a story about Kevin. Everything revolves around him. He's the "ha-ha, everything's a joke" funny man. It's a consistent part of his character. He copes by making jokes. It's how he addresses his insecurities. But they really do a poor job of masking his true self-doubt. It always creeps out no matter what. He is always seeking approval. The world revolves around him and he always feels like he's failing. It's consistent but it has also gotten pretty annoying over these first five episodes. Whatever happens, one can expect him to freak out about not being good enough and freaking out that he possibly made a big mistake. All most people can do is talk about how much they loved The Manny. Even William was a fan. However, it is important that Kevin is ultimately the one to pull himself out of this funk and fix the situation he created with the girls. It's not up to William to be the "wise owl." He does get Kevin to focus on what's really important with the play and not the circumstances surrounding his life. But it's still Kevin who goes to the girls' room to discuss life and death. It's another great speech that does a great job in pulling everything together in the end. But again, it's just a solid moment at the end of a questionably executed story and character arc. Will Kevin actually learn something from this and grow? It still seems doubtful which is starting to become a major problem.

And finally, Randall stories are really rising above everything else happening on the show. Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson work so well together. Ron Cephas Jones has been a crucial element of their stories as well. But "The Game Plan" proves that they both work as characters without William around. Their corner of this universe is so great too because Randall isn't defined by one thing like the rest of the cast. Kate is fat. Kevin is an actor. Jack and Rebecca are parents. Those are the broad definitions of those characters. Every story largely revolves around that core statement. Meanwhile, Randall is allowed to be many different things. Race can be an important part of his story but it's never the defining thing. Connecting with his biological father is another crucial element but again it doesn't define him. It's that kind of nuance that needs to be applied to the rest of the characters. Randall and Beth's pregnancy scare in this episode is simply a great story. It fits in the context of the rest of the hour. Part of why the Jack and Rebecca story doesn't work is because it's playing off a significantly better version of it with Randall and Beth. They too get in a fight about having a third kid and what that means for their future. Ultimately, Beth isn't pregnant. But it's a nice and different story that also highlights where they both see themselves moving forward. Those conversations are important. They fight but it's also key that they remain on the same page and their marriage is even stronger in the end. Yes, it's sappy and emotional. But the character work is so strong that it works nevertheless.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Game Plan" was written by Joe Lawson and directed by George Tillman.
  • Why do none of the main female characters have jobs? Rebecca and Beth are stay-at-home moms while Kate is just unemployed. Yes, being a parent is an important job. It's much more time consuming than anything else out there. But this hour also introduced the topic of Rebecca and Beth having plans for different careers as well. Will those be fleshed out? Or is the audience just not suppose to become that invested in what they may do in the future?
  • More tidbits about the family are revealed as well. Rebecca has a sister while Miguel has a wife and kids of his own. Any of these people could be popping up sometime in the future in either time frame.
  • The show actually becomes an immigrant story as well by revealing that Jack's grandfather came to this country from overseas. Jack didn't have a great upbringing as he reveals here but it's still an important part of the lineage that Kevin reflects on when he talks with the girls.
  • Should the audience really be worried about Randall's mental health? Beth told William about his past issues. Is that happening again? He almost puts a chemo pill in his smoothie. Is this foreshadowing? Or is it just exhaustion that would go away after a night in the fancy hotel room?
  • Kevin likes to paint after reading a script as a way to externalize the way he feels about it. It's a secret that not even Kate knows about. And yet, that seems doubtful. The show has set up how close they are. So, it seems weird that she wouldn't know this important detail about him.
  • Why does Kate have her father's ashes? Did no one else in the family want them? Is she the only one who still had a connection with him in the end? Again, this reveal only leads to more questions.
  • It's great that the show found some way to incorporate Mandy Moore's musical skills into Rebecca's life. Plus, it helps show a connection between Rebecca and Kate. They are both great singers.