Tuesday, October 17, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Jack and Rebecca are Surprised by Illness and an Unexpected Visitor in 'Still There'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.04 "Still There"

Randall and Beth adjust to a new family dynamic. Kate books her first big gig. Kevin suffers a setback on his movie. Jack and Rebecca are visited by an unwelcome guest.

This Is Us is fundamentally a story about generational identity within one family. Everything that these characters do is learned behavior from the people who raised them. Sometimes those connections are quite strong. Sometimes they are quite destructive. Sometimes the action is in defiance to what has occurred previously. But it can all be traced back to the way Jack and Rebecca chose to raise Kevin, Kate and Randall. They grew up in the same environment but are in wildly different places in their lives. Randall seems the healthiest emotionally because he has a strong and stable family environment. But he's really struggling with this latest addition he has chosen to carry. Meanwhile, Kate is feeling confident about her life and the prospects for her new career. And yet, all it takes is one unexpected twist for her to be taken aback and close herself off to the people she's suppose to let in. And Kevin isn't doing well at all. He believes that as long as he's moving forward he won't have time to deal with all the troubling emotions of the past. But that's a toxic understanding of life that is bound to be quite destructive for him this season. Meanwhile, Jack and Rebecca aren't saints either. They are flawed human beings doing things for certain reasons. Their story in "Still There" feels very much like a story of theirs from the first season. It's not connected to some kind of larger plot between the two of them revealing a new side to this family's history. Instead, it's just a brief glimpse at what was going on in Kevin, Kate and Randall's childhood that happens to have thematic importance to what they are going through in the present. It's familiar and manipulative. But it's still very comforting as well.

The show has properly explored why Jack and Rebecca have estranged relationships with their parents. It's a part of their generational divide. They want to step up and be better parents than what they got when they were growing up. They both wanted to escape from the worlds they came from. Getting married and starting this family has been tough on them. They haven't even gotten to the more difficult years yet. But they are happy with the family they have created. It's a nice environment where they adapt and change in order to be the best parents they can be for their three children. It's aspirational while not completely avoiding the hardships of their individual lives either. Here, the conflict comes from Rebecca's mother coming to town after learning that the kids have the chicken pox. Her opinions and prejudice have been a part of the story before. They are the reason why the Pearsons don't spend the holidays with her. And yet, it's apparently something she hasn't quite gotten yet. She still acts exactly the same throughout this episode. That's important for the eventual conversation she has with Rebecca. It's just a little repetitive as well. It's a story that highlights how great of a father Jack continued to be throughout his kids' childhood. It highlights Rebecca's mother's prejudice. She's not aware of the cutting power of her words. She doesn't know how disruptive they are to Rebecca. It stresses her out. It's a pattern she wants to avoid. She wants to be the champion for her children. That's then filled with the tragic irony that Kate views her mother the exact same way for most of her life. This season has already told a story about Kate being annoyed by Rebecca because of the things she says in passing about her life. The connection is just in the subtext here. It's more important to highlight the racism in Rebecca's mother. She needs to try harder to connect with Randall. It's a nice moment to end on with no further indication on if she'll continue to be an important character on this show.

This story comes at a time when Randall is struggling to figure out how he can be an effective foster for his new foster daughter. He hasn't connected with Deja in the way that he wanted. He sees himself as the head parent now that he's the one staying at home and not working full time. He wants to take on that responsibility. Randall and Beth have always done a great job parenting together. There's never been a division between them over who is unfairly doing more in caring for the girls. But now, Randall puts new pressure on himself to be the one to get Deja to open up. And in the end, that desire only causes more problems. It's more genuine when Beth puts in the effort. That's not a comment on her accessibility. It just notes that Deja is more comfortable with a female figure of authority who can open her eyes up to the true nature of her reality. When Beth talks about Deja's hair, it's an eye-opening experience that allows her to understand her body for the first time in her entire life. That's a beautiful moment of connection. This is what Beth pushed for and she's putting in the effort to make it work. Randall is working hard too. But it's great that the show isn't always ending things in this corner of the world with Randall's wise words of wisdom being able to provide a heartwarming final moment. He doesn't have all the answers. His actions do have the potential to make things worse. That makes him a flawed human being. He's desperate to connect. But in doing so, he reveals that any secret Deja tells to Beth won't be kept between them. And so, she's right back to rebelling. Her cutting her hair is a firm act of defiance against them that shows just how damaged her past must have been up to this point.

Meanwhile, Kate's story is just way too manipulative in order to be all that effective. It's once again a story that focuses entirely on her weight. The show approaches this story as such because the audience knows to expect that that's a lot of the depth to Kate's worldview. The show has always depicted her as someone who worries about her weight first and foremost with everything she does. It's conditioned us to expect that from her stories all the time. And so, it manipulates those expectations in order to do some grand reveal that will take her in a new direction moving forward. That final reveal is perfectly fine on its own. In fact, it's very exciting to think about Kate being pregnant and worrying about all of that. This is a new experience for her that will force her to deal with her own parents and wondering how she'll be as a mother. I'm disappointed that it seems to confirm that her relationship with Toby is strong even though it's very clearly not. But the reveal coming at the end of this episode where it's treated as some shocking plot development is just very awkward. The show purposefully keeps the audience out of the loop with this information. So, it seems like Kate is just focusing on her weight loss and stressing out about fitting into a dress. It's a story that doesn't have much depth to it. And so, it suffers because of that.

And finally, Kevin's story is a little too predictable. It's still an improvement on what his story was last season because it's connected to his family in a profound way. He is afraid of slowing down and doing nothing but recovering. He doesn't want to stop working just because his knee has been injured on the set of his movie. He's forced to get an operation. The production team is more than comfortable accommodating to his injury and recovery time. And yet, he's afraid that he'll lose all the momentum he has gotten in his career if he is forced to stop for a prolonged period of time. He's afraid that this surgery will cost him his acting career just like it did with his football career. That's a silly fear that doesn't really get to the heart of what's stressing Kevin out right now. This kind of injury can end his life when he makes a living in a very physical way. But with acting, it's not suddenly a huge deficit. He's making it up into such a huge deal. He's not taking the time to relax and recover. He just needs to keep moving forward. He's doing so because he's afraid to be alone with his thoughts and what this injury actually represents. It brings him right back to the time in his life when his promising career and his father were taken away from him. Just a mere glimpse of the old videos Jack recorded of him on the field are enough to send him spiraling into a mess. He would rather fake his way through the pain back on the set than have to delve into those actual emotions. But that only further confirms that he may be an addict just like his father and grandfather.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Still There" was written by Vera Herbert and directed by Ken Olin.
  • How did the production team on Kevin's movie not notice that Kevin needed medical attention for two weeks after he banged up his knee? Last week, the show made it seem like production had to stop after Kevin fell during the first take of the big battle sequence. It was this big display of destruction that would change his life. In reality, the medic would have arrived immediately. He wouldn't have been filming for two more weeks only for one of the producers to approach him later on.
  • Brian Grazer plays himself as the producer on the Ron Howard movie who tells Kevin he needs to be seen by the medic. That moment makes him seem like a very attentive and aware producer. But him showing appreciation for Kevin returning to set quickly after his surgery seems reckless. It makes it clear that it's a cameo appearance and nothing more.
  • Kevin's problems are allowed to fester because Sophie isn't around to knock some medical sense into him. She is a nurse. The show actively remembers that and makes it a key point of this story. She has the knowledge to know how to handle Kevin during this time. But that also sets up the expectation that she'll be aware of his problems immediately should the show pursue this addiction storyline. She can't be oblivious to it when she's seeing him every day.
  • Again, Kate and Toby's relationship isn't healthy if Kate is keeping her pregnancy a secret from him. Sure, she is only six weeks along. The future of this pregnancy could go any number of ways. But she needs to open up and have someone she can actually rely on. She'll need that no matter which direction this story goes in. If she can't be honest with Toby, then this isn't a healthy relationship despite him being the father.
  • It's great that the show doesn't allow Rebecca's mother to excuse her behavior by talking about the time she came up in and how opinions were different. That doesn't change anything. Sure, it was inevitable that Randall would hear this conversation and learn just how nuanced racism can be. That was a little melodramatic. Of course, the ending with Rebecca's mom reaching out and trying to understand isn't a whole lot better. The show isn't comfortable completely vilifying her yet.