Tuesday, September 26, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Randall and Beth Face a Disagreement While Jack and Rebecca Spend Time Apart in 'A Father's Advice'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.01 "A Father's Advice"

On the Big 3's 37th birthdays, Randall and Beth debate a big life change, Kate takes the first step in pursuing a new passion and Kevin balances the demands of his career and relationship. Meanwhile, Jack and Rebecca deal with the fallout of their big fight.

This Is Us was the huge, breakout success story of last year. It was heralded as the champion of broadcast television that could save that entire business model. Of course, that's a lot of hype to live up to. But the ratings have been tremendous. It more than justified an incredibly rare two-season renewal. Of course, that was a part of a larger trend last year where the broadcast networks locked down their biggest shows - with The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family and The Goldbergs also earning two-season pickups. But more importantly, This Is Us broke through at the Emmys in a significant way. The awards themselves mean less and less each year with the rate that television is growing. But it's also a fine indication of some of the big stories in the year of television. The success of This Is Us was one of those stories. Sterling K. Brown and Gerald McRaney ultimately went home with trophies. Those were very well deserved as well. All of this obviously sets huge expectations heading into the second season. NBC continues to treat it as this behemoth ratings hit that only strengthened their hold as the number one network in the key demographics. The network is hoping that buzz will continue and that it can successfully launch new shows after it as well. All of this is fun and interesting to write about. This Is Us has obviously broken through the cultural zeitgeist. "A Father's Advice" is a premiere that resembles everything that did and didn't work last season. So, the show is exactly as it was. It's imperfect but notable in the greater conversation of the industry.

Once more, Randall's corner of this universe is just vastly more compelling to watch than everything. It's this incredibly simple story that earns the emotions within the characters. All of the other stories feel very forced and manipulative. They are trying to get the audience in an emotional state. That has become the brand of the show. Even the emoji that appears alongside the hashtag on Twitter is a tissue box. The world at large knows what this show is. And yes, a show that builds to those big moments of human emotion that touch people in a deep way is a very good thing to have in this industry. It just feels more natural and earned when it comes to Randall and Beth. Their struggles this season will concern adoption. That's a fascinating pivot after last season's extremely poignant story of reconnecting with William in the months before he would die. That was so emotionally resonant in a strong and significant way. It's not surprising in the slightest that the show is figuring out a way to keep Ron Cephas Jones a member of the ensemble despite William dying last season. Yes, it's a forced plot device as well. Do we really need to see Beth and most likely Randall having conversations with the memory of William? It's unclear at this point. But it sure is good to see him again. Yes, it's a manipulative trick the writers are employing to convey a sense of grand emotion in this dynamic. But again, it works. It hits because Randall and Beth's relationship with William was so deep and nuanced.

And that nuance is still on display in Randall and Beth's new storyline. He felt the desire at the end of last season to adopt a baby. It was this image that got into his head and he has gotten obsessed over it. He's a perfectionist who can really obsess over his life in a really unhealthy way. That can be quite destructive to his life in many different ways. Right now, he's just a stay-at-home dad. He's in that blissful bubble of being there for his family and not having to deal with the pressures of his job or the whims of his siblings. He's allowed to just live in this idea of adoption. He's all ready for it and won't think about anything else. Beth is more hesitant about the idea because it seems like Randall is making all of the decisions in their marriage. That fosters a really great conversation about marriage and the choices that come to define it. Rebecca believes that there is always someone driving the decision. The other person needs to be pushed in order to accept it. That's the bond that defined her marriage with Jack. It's a bond that she loved and cherished. She wouldn't change it. And yet, Randall and Beth's marriage is so much better than Rebecca and Jack's in so many different ways. They are both allowed to be flawed characters who can openly discuss their issues with their partner. There aren't big secrets. They are allowed to hash things out. Randall knows that he needs to come home and deliver a speech about how his marriage is perfect because of its imperfections. That's a huge moment. And Beth pushing Randall to try to adopt an older kid who could use a healthy influence in his life is the kind of compromise that is rewarding for both of them. Yes, it felt like the expected twist to bring them together at the end of this episode. But it was still very earned and the two of them are stronger because they had this conversation.

The Randall and Beth story is such simple storytelling. It shows just how authentic this show can be in its depiction of real life. Meanwhile, the fallout of Jack and Rebecca's fight continues to feel forced. It's acted phenomenally well by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore. But it also has the structural design of a puzzle box mystery that needs to be solved. It again all revolves around the eventual death of Jack. It's played as this big mystery that the audience is trying to crack. Each week offers us another piece of the puzzle. It's a story the show has been working for a long time. It then blew up into this big thing. The fans have really become obsessed with finding out what's going to happen to Jack. If that's all you care about from this corner of the show, then this premiere was probably satisfying enough for you. I much prefer the genuine character story of a marriage hitting a rough patch. I'm much more engaged with the actual fallout of the big fight that the two of them had which has led to this separation between them. And yet, it's hard to totally be engaged with that because there is a near constant fear that any moment could turn out to be the moment where Jack has a heart attack or gets into a car accident or gets alcohol poisoning or trips down the stairs or is hugged to death by Kate or is hit by a falling piano. The mystery of it all has grown too large and has taken the audience out of the character itself. It's now become an expected twist. Yes, it's still devastating to get that big piece of information at the end of "A Father's Advice." But it only sets up new clues that the audience needs to be looking for.

And again, it's fascinating to see Jack and Rebecca apart. They are analyzing their lives and the decisions they've made over the years. Rebecca feels a sense of longing because she's not sure she's comfortable with the life she is currently living. She feels unsatisfied and Jack hasn't been supportive of her desire to explore music again. That led to that big fight between them. Now, it's important that they are apart. Jack is working under the assumption that it will all sort itself out in a matter of hours without him needing to change at all. That's delusional. It shows the flaws within his character. He has frequently been an almost perfect human being. The only flaw he has is his alcoholism. It's a flaw that the audience understands more than the central family does. It's a destructive disease that carries weight as the only significant flaw to him as well. But it's also fascinating to see him be so presumptuous about the situation while also not knowing how to please Rebecca anymore. It's what makes that final conversation on Miguel's front porch sting so much. Sure, it's Rebecca coming to Jack under the belief that her thoughts were silly and she shouldn't have sent him away. That doesn't really feel right. But as soon as Jack takes that beat to say that he is an alcoholic and this separation is necessary, it becomes so devastating. Rebecca wanting to continue fighting for their marriage is the moment where the passion and genuine stakes of this story are truly alive. And then, it's immediately followed with the reveal that in a few months time Jack will die in a fire. Again, it's important information to have. It just feels tacked on in a weird way to let the audience feel satisfied with some answers that they have become obsessed with.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Father's Advice" was written by Dan Fogelman and directed by Ken Olin.
  • The show promoted a huge number of actors to series regular status this season. Those promotions include Jon Huertas (Miguel), Alexandra Breckenridge (Sophie), Niles Fitch (Teen Randall), Hannah Zeile (Teen Kate), Mackenzie Hancsicsak (Young Kate), Logan Shroyer (Teen Kevin), Parker Bates (Young Kevin), Eris Baker (Tess) and Faithe Herman (Annie). Of course, they will all likely appear as much in this season as they did last year.
  • Kevin is officially on the movie set of a film Ron Howard is directing. It is not the Han Solo spinoff film of Star Wars though. And yet, it strangely includes CGI inserts of Kevin's scene partner. That's a little weird. I'm not entirely sure what this film is suppose to be. It really could be anything. Or it could just continue to highlight how fake and manipulative showbiz can be.
  • So much of Kevin and Kate's story happens here because Sophie is unable to fly to Los Angeles to be with Kevin for his birthday because her mother is having a bad morning with her MS. And yet, Sophie is magically there waiting at the hotel when Kevin returns. As such, it makes her less of a fully realized character and more like a female plot device to keep Kevin's attention.
  • I still continue to hold out hope that the show will tell a story with Kate that isn't completely centered around her weight. Her going on auditions to make it as a singer is a promising start. Plus, it highlights how she has internalized these fears about her weight for a long time. She's the one who makes it a big deal. Hopefully, that will serve to boost her confidence and take the appropriate steps to work on her singing abilities.
  • It's also still difficult to care about Kate and Toby's relationship. He has never seemed like a good and genuine influence for her. And here, he does spend a lot of time obsessing about himself and what Kate should be doing in her life. It's not great and Kate has the appropriate reaction of calling him and her brother out for their behavior.