Tuesday, December 6, 2016

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - The Pearson Family Needs to Believe that Nothing Bad Will Happen on Christmas in 'Last Christmas'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 1.10 "Last Christmas"

The Pearson family finds themselves at the hospital on Christmas Eve after little Kate comes down with appendicitis. When they run into Dr. K, who is alone at the hospital, they realize they need to be there for him as much as he was once there for them. Presently, Kevin celebrates Hanukkah with Sloan and her family, Kate continues to pursue her big surgery and someone from William's past reappears in his life.

This Is Us has been one of the biggest success stories on the broadcast networks over the last few years. It has done so well for NBC in its debut season so far. It certainly has its problems. But the hard part of getting people to watch week after week is not an issue for this show. That can probably best be attributed to its combination of family sentimentality and a twist-based narrative. This show has always been manipulative of its audience. It builds expectations for one thing only to completely shock the audience with something different being true. That has been a foundational thing for the show from the very beginning. Twists fuel the momentum of this season. The reveals that the characters are all related, Rebecca and Miguel are married, and Jack is dead have increased the urgency to watch the show as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the sentimentality of the family story makes the connection and dynamics amongst the characters feel important and lived in very quickly. It's a fascinating way to tell stories. On one hand, it makes the audience aware that they're likely being manipulated. But the work from a stellar cast is able to still make us want everything to work out for this family.

All of this leads to a looming sense of dread throughout "Last Christmas." It's a unique episode for the series because it tells its stories one at a time. They aren't intercut with each other. It moves from one set of characters to the next. It tells their full story in a matter of minutes instead of stretching things out to a full hour. It works because it's all building to that moment where the family all comes together to celebrate Christmas at Randall's house. But the moment that Rebecca tells a young Kate that "nothing bad ever happens on Christmas," it foreshadows that something bad is going to happen in one of these stories. It's a guessing game to figure out what could possibly happen and to whom. The various stories escalate with this tension. Some of them don't have life-or-death stakes at all. Kevin is just celebrating a Hanukkah dinner while Kate is learning more about her upcoming surgery. But many of them actually do. We know that Kate's appendectomy won't cause any major issues. But Jack and Rebecca run into Doctor K, who also requires surgery following a car accident. Elsewhere, William is away from the family and struggling to know if he should continue accepting love into his life when he knows he doesn't have much time left. And then, Randall is literally trying to talk someone off the edge before he commits suicide. It's a tense hour. But it's also one with a completely unexpected ending.

It's not surprising in the least that the show decides to go into its brief winter hiatus with a major cliffhanger. It's again a part of the twist-based nature of the storytelling the show enjoys doing. Shows built around twists need to keep providing them in order to entertain the audience. The show said that twists are a core part of its narrative. So now, it needs to keep doing them. The twists aren't always the best part of This Is Us. They need to be deeply rooted in the characters' emotional arcs in order to be successful. The shock value of what happens at the end of "Last Christmas" is high. It seems unlikely that people were expecting Toby to have a heart attack right after he and Kate made up. Toby isn't even an important part of this episode until the concluding moments. And yet, those are some crucial moments. All of the signs are there suggesting that he may not be as well as he seems. He complains that his body hurts because of the plane ride he was on. He's later out of breathe but that is played as simply the aftermath of sex. But no, all of this is pointing to something much more serious. His fate is now up in the air. Will he survive? It's unclear. But more importantly, should he? The show has been invested in Kate and Toby's relationship. And yet, Toby really hasn't been as great a guy as Kate claims he is. Sure, he's sweet and knows how to do romantic gestures. But he's had plenty of off-putting moments as well. The show really could go in either direction with this moment. He could live. This close call with death could get him to take losing weight more seriously. Or he could die which would give Kate a powerful story that is not exclusively about her weight. That could be filled with its own soapy twists. They did have sex after all.

Of course, things did look quite serious during those final moments. It's an interesting montage because the audience originally believes it's Doctor K dying on the table and needing to be shocked back to life. Up until that point, he's the character most likely to die. The story of Jack and Rebecca opens this episode. They extend a kindness to Doctor K when they learn he's in the hospital as well. It serves as further proof that Jack and Rebecca are optimists. That comes very naturally for Jack. He refuses to believe that Doctor K will die here. He sees all of this as a cosmic sign that they are all suppose to be here in this moment for each other. It ultimately is a good thing for everything. Kate and Doctor K survive surgery, Kevin learns to take religion more seriously and Randall shows that he can be compassionate when he thanks Doctor K for getting his parents to adopt him. Jack and Rebecca may have no reason to be as optimistic as they are. But that feeling permeates throughout this episode. It says that no matter how dark things get that nothing bad will happen on this day. It's clearly not something Kate remembers in adulthood. She doesn't recall what her mom told her before this major surgery. But once again, it's clear that Randall always put his parents on a pedestal and remembered everything that they did during his upbringing.

All of this motivates Randall to say something when his co-worker, Andy, is going to commit suicide during the holiday party. It's a dark moment for the show. It's not as inherently emotional as the other stories of the hour. That's because Andy is just a one-off character. He hasn't been seen before and probably won't be seen again. And yet, this sequence is incredibly powerful because of the great acting that Sterling K. Brown and Jimmi Simpson do. This is a man who needs a friend in this moment. Randall is there for Andy even though he doesn't know him very well. This isn't how he was expecting to spend Christmas. All of his family is bailing on his big get together back at home. He's stuck at this work function where no one is having any fun. But then, he goes out onto that balcony and shares this moment with Andy. Randall has to set aside all of his personal anger and problems to help this guy before he makes a major mistake. It shows just how compassionate Randall is. It's a moment that changes this night for him. It makes him embrace his family even tighter. But it also props up the idea that nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve. Randall did his part to make that true.

And in the end, the family is all together at Randall's house. He had resigned himself to a nice, quiet evening with his wife and daughters. Instead, he got chaos with Kevin bringing his new fake girlfriend, Toby making a grand entrance for Kate, the first steps of his new dynamic with Rebecca, and William bringing his new lover, Jessie, back home. There is a lot going on during this big moment with the family. So much has changed in all of their lives as of late. And so much more is going to change in the immediate future. William could die at any moment. Kate may have the surgery to shrink her stomach. Kevin is putting up his own money to finance the play. Toby is in the middle of life-saving surgery. No matter what happens this family will need to support each other. Something bad may happen on this Christmas. But it's up to the family to make sure they don't fall apart because of it.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Last Christmas" was written by Donald Todd and directed by Helen Hunt.
  • Sloane's play has been shut down because Olivia hasn't been seen in a month. Kevin doesn't really show any concern for her. He's just upset that his future is now in flux. But he sees how great Sloane is as a storyteller and decides to force this play into existence by himself.
  • As someone who isn't Jewish, I thought it was suspicious that Kevin and Sloane were celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas Eve on the same day. But then, I looked it up and that really is true this year.
  • William having found love again after the death of Randall's mother was a surprise. That's largely because it reveals that he's bisexual. A reveal that works because of how casual it is. It's not a big deal whatsoever.
  • It's a bit suspicious that Doctor K remembers the names of everyone in the Pearson family after not seeing them for nine years. 
  • Why exactly does Rebecca go with Kate to that consultation about the surgery. It makes sure there are two different reactions to the information. But it also highlights how the two of them still don't really understand each other.
  • Why is Miguel putting up Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve? Or was he just trying to fix something? It wasn't clear. It was just important that he was there to break up the scene between Kate and Rebecca with some levity.
  • Randall buys things when he's depressed. That should be an amusing thing to look out for moving forward. His and Beth's banter about the boat is pretty great though.