Tuesday, October 31, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Randall's Life is Consistently Changed During Halloween in 'The 20's'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.06 "The 20's"

Trick-or-treating with the 10-year-olds goes awry for Jack and Rebecca. Randall, Kevin and Kate have life-changing Halloweens.

This Is Us still has the power to surprise its audience. It typically employs that power with episode-ending twists that force the audience to completely change our perception of the Pearson family. And yet, the show is so much better when it just focuses on being a family drama across the generations. At first, it didn't seem like an episode where the story depicts Randall, Kevin and Kate in their 20s would be all that fascinating or important. But it's surprising how emotional and earned this episode becomes by the end of its running time. It's really powerful to watch. Yes, the Randall storyline is consistently stronger than everything else. This one once again maintains that focus because it knows how resonant this time is for him in comparison to what Kevin and Kate are up to. It's an emotional time for him and Sterling K. Brown does a phenomenal job in selling the material. Mandy Moore has plenty of strong and varied work across this episode as well because Rebecca is seen in three different points in her life. Two of them are very familiar for the audience while the third is completely new. It's surprising to see what these characters were like in 2008. Yes, a lot of it was to be expected. Randall is stressing out about Tess' pending birth. Kevin is being a selfish and destructive actor in Los Angeles. Kate is eating her feelings. But the way these various stories merge is very unexpected and really delivers a strong and poignant message in the end.

All of that being said though, I don't think it was all that necessary to set the events of this episode on Halloween night. That holiday provides the connective tissue for these stories. At age 10, Randall learns about Kyle while trick-or-treating with Rebecca. And in 2008, Beth gives birth to Tess. Those are the big emotional events this hour depicts. But they aren't all that specific to the holiday. It mostly feels like the show feeling the need to be topical and current because it happens to be airing this episode on Halloween. It isn't all that necessary. The story with Jack and Rebecca is the only one that features the characters actually celebrating the holiday. That mostly highlights how Jack and Rebecca have their own parenting struggles and close attachments to certain kids. Jack is willing to say yes to whatever Kate wants while Rebecca feels the constant need to be protective of Randall. Those are dynamics that have been seen before. Even though Jack and Rebecca try to address them here, the audience is fully aware that these characteristics will continue to be major parts of their lives. There's optimism even though the audience has the full picture on how toxic these relationships will one day become. Jack and Rebecca see no problem with their behavior in the past. But it leads to Kate eating all of her feelings after Jack dies and Randall having a nervous breakdown before the birth of his first daughter.

And again, the audience already knew about the breakdown that Randall had before Tess' birth where Beth found him screaming out in agony because he could no longer see. It was a story she told William early last season to ensure that he wouldn't cause that same pain for him. He promised not to only for the story to eventually pivot into that direction. The show didn't spend a lot of time focusing on Randall's recovery from that incident because he quickly went on a road trip with William. That showed that as he's gotten older he's found a better way of coping with this even though he's annoyed when his family mocks his perfectionism. He still stresses out to the point of a breakdown. But it's fascinating to flash back to the time in the months following this scary moment. This hour doesn't dramatize the event itself. Instead, it's the day before Beth has scheduled to deliver her baby. The hour makes that clear right away even though it sets up the inevitable expectation that she'll go into labor early and freak out Randall as a result. All of that is familiar and predictable. Rebecca has arrived to help deal with everything. But the story does take the turn of Beth's water breaking while Randall is at the store. He arrives at home in time to deliver the baby. That seems somewhat miraculous. He even manages to beat the ambulance there. The show makes it seem incredibly easy to deliver a baby. But it's still a beautiful moment because it highlights how Randall is prepared for anything. He can improvise when the time comes for it.

That's the huge focus of the Randall stories in the present and the past. At 10 years old, he wants to stick to his schedule. He has mapped out the neighborhood and decided which houses to hit up for candy and which to skip for various reasons. Rebecca encourages all of this even though it creates such an intense argument once the rest of the family wants to break from the plans. The family is separated with Rebecca having the much more intense night with Randall. All Jack needs to worry about is Kate growing up and showing more interest in boys. Meanwhile, Randall is growing up and learns about Kyle for the first time. It's a story Jack and Rebecca always planned on telling him. They were just waiting for him to be mature enough to handle it all. He's very mature for his age. But it's completely unexpected. Jack and Rebecca weren't prepared for this. They had the plan to sit Randall down and tell him about Kyle. But Rebecca is forced to improvise. She's forced to adapt to the changing situation just like she wants Randall to do. In Rebecca's plan, she just wanted Randall to go to a house that wasn't on his map. For Randall though, it's a disruption to the evening that further creates anxiety in this family. Rebecca doesn't know if she did a good job in handling all of this. She was completely honest with Randall. She answered all of his questions. But Jack wasn't there. He's there in the aftermath and is supportive. They just don't know how well Randall will adapt to learning this information.

Meanwhile in 2008, Beth is walking around on tiptoes with Randall. He is freaking out about all of the uncertainties that come from a new baby. It's a huge life experience that will completely change everything for this family. Rebecca is there as well for support. She truly believes that Randall will be back to his normal self with time. The audience knows that to be the case as well. It just takes a random stranger to convince Randall that he has nothing to worry about with bringing a new baby into this world. Tess gets her name from a fan. That's strange and peculiar. The show is aware of that as well. And yet, it still manages to make it a very sweet moment. That is then immediately followed by the extremely emotional moment of Rebecca talking to her first grandchild. The show does a manipulative thing in framing this opposite her first conversation with Randall as a baby. It highlights the different places in life she is. But it's also a hallmark moment for the series. The context of Rebecca's speech to Tess is significant because the audience understands the journey she has been on with this family. She goes on about how this is seemingly the beginning for Tess. But it's so much more than that as well. It's actually the middle of such a great experience that Rebecca has been a part of for so long. She met Randall in that hospital over 20 years ago. She raised him into the man that he is today. And now, he is becoming a father. It's a beautiful moment. That then pivots to the tragedy of Jack not being there to experience it as well. She always believed he would be by her side on this journey forever. Instead, he was taken from the family too soon. Now, some will see the events of this episode as the newest puzzle piece of this family. Miguel didn't swoop in and comfort Rebecca after Jack's death and that's when their relationship started. Instead, they reconnect after Tess is born via Facebook. It's surprising and there to give a new clue about this family to the audience. But the sentiment of the moment is still powerful. This is a show about connection. Rebecca understands so much and she has so much to share with her family. She's connected to all of them. She's made mistakes and has lived through hardships. But the future is looking bright for her as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The 20's" was written by Don Roos and directed by Regina King.
  • This episode serves as more proof that Kate has horrible taste in men. She always picks the guys who are unavailable for a lasting relationship or are too extreme and forceful. Her relationship with Toby is meant to be genuine. I still don't perceive it that way. And now having this information about her sleeping with a married guy is proof that a pattern could exist with Kate making terrible decisions when it comes to dating.
  • Kevin has always been a selfish and arrogant actor. And here, he is even worse because he's young and stupid. He believes he's better than he actually is but isn't getting any work. That attitude does come across to the people he meets. He tries stealing a part from his roommate which immediately backfires on him. It's a story that says nothing new about Kevin. It just establishes how both he and Kate were hopeful about their arrangement in Los Angeles.
  • What's the age range for Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley in playing Randall, Kate and Kevin? This is the youngest they've been seen in playing these characters. The show already has the teen cast they could utilize for college years. But the adult actors are playing the late 20s versions. So what's the lowest they can go? And similarly, what's the oldest they will be seen? Or will the show just not try to guess at what the future looks like?
  • It's great that the show has a character in a turban as the man who helps Randall through this difficult time. That role could have been played by anyone. Normally, it would have just been someone similar to what the main character is going through. But the show highlights the difference and empowers it in the story. That's the way to do more inclusive storytelling.
  • So here's a peek behind how the sausage gets made, NBC sent out the screener for this episode on Monday afternoon. I watched it a few hours after that. I gasped immediately when Kevin's roommate exclaimed that he "just booked a role in the Kevin Spacey movie." Now, this was obviously filmed weeks ago. But it would produce a different reaction from the audience now based on the sexual abuse allegations against Spacey that came out on Sunday. So today, NBC released a statement saying that they edited the scene to remove the reference. The final product includes more of a cutaway to Kevin and Spacey being replaced by Christian Bale.