Tuesday, October 3, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - The Family Comes Together to Support Kevin's Latest Career Move in 'A Manny-Splendored Thing'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.02 "A Manny-Splendored Thing"

The entire Pearson family visits Kevin on set in Los Angeles for a "Manny" taping. Jack confronts his demons in the wake of his fight with Rebecca.

"A Manny-Splendored Thing" asks the audience to just accept that Kevin is now willing to return to The Manny for an episode. It's a weird ask for the show to make given everything that has been happening in Kevin's career. If the play wasn't as successful as he thought it would be or if there wasn't that movie with Ron Howard, then it would be more believable that he would make this move in order to be relevant as an actor again. But right now, he has success. He's the lead in a film directed by Ron Howard! His career is booming now. And yet, he strangely decides to make this appearance because he equates it with George Clooney coming back to an episode of ER in its final season despite him now being a huge movie star. But that comparison isn't apt for Kevin. He's been away from this show for a year. But he hasn't broken out in a major way in his career where more people recognize him for work outside of the show. The show treats it as a potential ratings boost for The Manny. They are cynical about the return to this world as well. However, it mostly just feels like an excuse to bring the family together once more. Everyone on the East Coast flies out to Los Angeles to see the taping. It's strange and forced. It's nice to see everyone out in that environment. This ensemble works insanely well when the various characters play off of each other. The moments between Kate and Rebecca as well as Kevin and Beth are some of the strongest of the episode. Those are dynamics that aren't traditionally a part of their normal stories. That shows significant growth. But the circumstances for why they are all here is incredibly weird. Why couldn't the entire family just be visiting Kevin on the set of his new movie? Why do they need to return to The Manny at all?

It's a main story that basically indulges Kevin on his worst impulses. He's very critical about how he's coming across. He wants this to be a victory lap of him returning to the show he criticized and making a normal episode even better. He has these lofty expectations. And then, the story takes the predictable route of the series creator only bringing him back to embarrass him in a huge way. It's the kind of twist that anyone could have seen coming. He's too in his own head about whether he deserves any better than this. It's a story the show has told many times already with him. This time he just has Sophie in his corner cheering him on. That doesn't do anything for her as a character. It just makes her a cheering squad for Kevin who doesn't exist outside of that relationship. The Pearson family has known Sophie for years. They've had mixed feelings about Kevin and Sophie's marriage and divorce. And yet, none of them interact with her at all in this episode. That's weird. It makes the worldview still seem limited and small even though random characters are bouncing off of each other in interesting ways. And again, what's the point? Will this experience change Kevin in any way? Will it affect his performance in the film? In the end, it still just feels like a plot device to get everyone together once more while not telling a different kind of story for any of the other characters.

Things are a little repetitive with Randall's corner of the world as well. Randall and Beth have frequently been the best characters on this show because their concerns and relationship feel real and genuine. It's not as forced as many of the other stories are. But here, it seems like they are having the same fight about fostering a child as they did in the season premiere. It's once again a story about Randall obsessing over every detail and worrying about all of the possibilities that could happen. Beth doesn't feel that same kind of stress. She believes they can handle any problem that comes their way because their relationship is so strong. It's nice and surprising that Kevin is the one giving the big pep talk in this story. But it's odd that he's delivering it to Beth instead of Randall. Beth didn't need any convincing to stick to the plan. Randall is the one spiraling out because of his fears. Beth has been the reassuring one. And yet, she's the one who gets the speech about how risk-averse Randall has been his entire life. It redefines the story of how the two of them met because she learns that Kevin was listening in on their conversation the entire time and helping his brother out. That's an amusing detail. But it doesn't do a whole lot to salvage this story. It's just important to know that the two of them are healthy and happy as a couple once more.

Meanwhile, things seem to be happening very quickly with Kate's story. Last week, she got a new sense of confidence for being rejected not because of her weight but for not being good enough. That was a new motivator for her. One that would push her to improve her talent so that she could pursue this career. And then, she just suddenly gets a job. She hasn't put in the work to improve at all. The season premiere showed us how she compared to other people going out for these jobs. She didn't have the skills yet. And now, we are just suppose to accept that she gets this gig. Not only that but her big performance is played across a montage of the various stories. So, the audience is suppose to believe that she is incredibly talented and doesn't need to improve. Of course, she is great. Chrissy Metz has a lovely singing voice. She commands the screen with it. It's a very nice moment. It's just weird to have this moment after everything that went down last week. It seems like an erratic story. The show can't figure out if it wants to spend time on Kate honing her talent or if she should immediately join a band and explore that dynamic like what happened last season with Rebecca. Of course, this story isn't really about that either. It's instead about Kate and Rebecca. Things have always been tense between them. Kate has always compared herself to her mother and always feels disappointed when interacting with Rebecca. Of course, she's mean to Rebecca as well. She always sees everything as a criticism. Yes, Rebecca does come across as self-centered throughout this particular story. She doesn't mean to but she is. She's not aware of it while Kate is only aware of it. It's not healthy for either of them. And then, the moment just becomes entirely about Toby and whether Rebecca likes him. That's a jarring twist that can take the audience out of the genuine nature of this story as well.

However, Jack's story can at least be appreciated. His drinking problem was established early on in the show's life. It was played as this one character flaw to him. But in that early episode, he was able to just address it easily. He said that he would quit drinking for his family. And then, it was never a point of the story again until many years later. Even then, it's still a fairly new development - though it seems like it will be a crucial element to his eventual death. It felt too easy and simple for him to address this serious problem. And now, the show is going back and filling in the gaps to explain how Jack was able to actually accomplish that. Of course, the story in the past is very much all over the place. It's Jack and Rebecca in the 1990s after their big fight reflecting back on how Jack was able to fix things a decade earlier. The 1980s story is also thematically rich with the various performances that Kevin and Kate are doing as well. So, it's a busy storyline. As such, it can never really focus on things enough in order to have a strong emotional hook. It's meaningful that Jack is able to address his drinking simply by going to a gym and punching a punching bag. That was his solution then. And now, it's more important for him to accept that he needs actual help. He can no longer keep all of this inside because it's slowly been destroying his relationship with his family. So now, he's actively going to meetings and being honest with Rebecca and his kids. That's a nice step of emotional character growth. But it still feels a little too irrelevant because the audience knows he won't be alive long enough for any of this to truly stick. That's the downside of that big reveal at the end of the premiere. It's building to that moment and nothing else.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Manny-Splendored Thing" was written by Dan Fogelman & Bekah Brunstetter and directed by John Fortenberry.
  • Tess and Annie really do seem like great kids. Randall and Beth have done a great job raising them. Of course, it seems like they picked up some of his perfectionism as well because they need to be the ones to pack the vehicle because the parents don't do it right. And yet, it's a little lackluster that the show doesn't include the scene where Randall and Beth tell them what's going on in regards to fostering another child who'll be older.
  • It seems like a very meta moment when Toby notes that both he and Miguel are the outsiders in this family whom no one in the family actually likes all that much. But it's also too forced as well. The show commenting on that doesn't make me like Toby at all. His obsessiveness over being liked is really annoying and distracting throughout this episode. And it gets rewarded in the end too!
  • The show really hasn't spent a lot of time fleshing out the relationship between Kevin and Jack. It's told stories about how Kate and Randall related to their father and how they've been affected by his death. That's present a little bit with how Kevin was immature when he decided to marry Sophie. But it's a noticeable absence in his story as well.
  • Of course, the moments between Jack and Kate are pretty great throughout this hour. It shows that through the years they have a bond that is incredibly strong. She gets more and more critical of her mother over the years. But she's still willing to look her father straight in the face to reassure him that everything is going to turn out alright.
  • It also seemed like the show was setting up a freakout with Kevin because his entire family flew into town for this taping and then abandoned him throughout the night. Also, why does Kevin associate being an actor with being funny? He sees it as a likable quality and is annoyed when Beth doesn't think he's funny. But that's a story that doesn't really go anywhere.