Tuesday, November 14, 2017

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Getting an Award Doesn't Change Kevin's Tragic Spiral in 'Number One'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.08 "Number One"

Kevin goes back to his high school to accept an award. Jack and Rebecca get excited about their kids' futures.

"Memphis" was easily the best episode of This Is Us in its first season. It succeeded because it pushed to the side all of the various plot threads of the narrative to just focus on one very emotional story. It was simply about Randall and William going to Memphis to enjoy one last adventure before William died. It was brutal but it was so special and rewarding as well. This show is always significantly better when Randall is at the forefront of the action. It's almost unfairly balanced too. Randall's corner of the story is so great that everything else pales in comparison. It's not surprising in the slightest that the show has decided to film more episodes that only focus on one of the characters in its expansive ensemble. This is a cast of so many talented actors. Even though I've been annoyed by the majority of Kevin and Kate stories across the series run, I still see Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz as terrific actors who can at least elevate the subpar material. Those are qualities that make them skilled to headline episodes all by themselves as well. Most of the actors on this show can do that feat. It just becomes a question of if the audience can tolerate a Kevin-fronted hour. If I were to make a list of characters who I would want to see dominate the story for an entire hour in this story, Kevin would rank near the bottom. He would still be preferred to Toby. A Tess and Annie episode probably wouldn't have enough to it. Sophie is still a character who largely exists through her relationship with Kevin. But that's about it in characters I would rank below Kevin in desire to topline a complete episode of this show. But Kevin is a significant character. He's a part of the Big Three. More than that, he is Number One. He's the first child of Rebecca and Jack. And now, it appears that This Is Us is using the next three episodes to tell specific hourlong stories for Kevin, Kate and Randall. They promise to be emotional. They each have the material at the moment to justify such a structural experiment. But the actual plot beats of "Number One" are still incredibly problematic.

This Is Us is such a breakout show for the broadcast networks. It's success has been attributed to telling emotional feel-good stories. Of course, not every story on this show is happy. There is a lot of emotional turmoil that the characters have been put through. And yet, it's been heavily regarded as showing the real ups and downs of a family across multiple generations. It's always building to that emotionally sappy moment where one monologue from Jack can seemingly wipe away all of the pain and agony happening elsewhere in the narrative. It's a show that is built around those uplifting moments. There is hope that is just around the corner even during the most difficult of times. As such, it feels very rewarding to watch because it's so cathartic. The audience can relate to the struggles and have the pleasure of being taken on a journey that includes that message of hopefulness. "Number One" switches up the tone in a really uncomfortable way. Over the course of these two seasons, This Is Us has featured a number of unintentionally cringeworthy moments. Those are moments where the show is playing things genuinely and for strong emotional impact but the audience can see the manipulations and can be turned off by how icky or annoying the actions at the center of the moment actually are. The cast can frequently overcome those moments through solid acting. But the seams have been more apparent this season. The show is really pushing hard for Toby to be seen as a romantic hero even though he's clearly not. That's a case where the show doesn't really know how cringeworthy its action have become. But in "Number One," the show is purposefully being cringeworthy. It's following Kevin on this really dark and depressing journey of self-destruction. It wallows in those emotions without really ever offering that moment of hopefulness in the end. As such, it stands out from the basic structure and tone of the show in a way that one has to really question what the purpose of it all is.

And of course, Kevin's addiction storyline was already starting to become really annoying. It made it clear that "Number One" needed to do a couple of things. In the past, it needed to be the episode where Kevin's high school football injury happened. And in the present, it needed to be the episode where Kevin either hit rock bottom or was discovered by his loved ones. The show definitely understands that. It is aware that it can't drag this story out forever. However, it's basically okay with sitting in the uncomfortableness of this addiction for an entire episode without really doing anything to significantly change how Kevin is dealing with it. It's just making it even more tragic for him because he has pushed everyone away in a time where he really needs help. It's an isolating episode where he is surrounded by people but no one truly understands him. It's the tragedy of his life where he has always been given ample opportunities to succeed but his personal immaturity often gets in the way of him actually enjoying success for a long period of time. He views himself as having earned this addiction. He believes it's karma from the universe for the goodness that has been in his life lately. That's not completely fair. It all stems back to how Kevin still hasn't properly dealt with his father's death. This addiction connects him to Jack more than ever before. The story of the past does deal with that relationship. But even that seems slightly awkward and not all that consistent. It's simply fading in and out of the narrative instead of being an actual story. Instead, Kevin's sports injury happens more as a distant but painful memory of the past than the show actually revealing an important part of the story to the audience.

On one hand, it should be karmically satisfying to see someone who is cocky in his talents be knocked down a couple of pegs. That's basically the story that fades in and out in the past. Kevin doesn't really behave because he believes his future is already mapped out because he is wonderfully gifted on the football field. He can get a scholarship from any university and have a successful career as a pro athlete. As such, he believes he doesn't need to be nice to the representative from a school he deems too minor to actual consider attending. On the other hand though, this is just an incredibly down and depressing episode that highlights the many tragedies in Kevin's life. At least, he is experiencing those emotions. For too long, he has closed himself off from dealing with his dad's death. But now, he's not in the right headspace to actually address them in a beneficial way. It's mostly just highlighting how self-destructive he always is. He's blaming the universe for his problems. He's had this life of ups and downs. Whenever he gets success, he messes it up. Whenever he believes he can't bounce back from his actions, then the universe gives him more success without the proper tools to accept it and have a healthy life. All of this is Kevin's fault though. He is the consistent feature in his life. He can't keep blaming the rest of the world for his problems. He has to own up to his own horrible life and the decisions that he has. This is all played as this massive moment of reflection and introspection. A moment where Kevin realizes that he has caused pain for others but mostly for himself. A moment where he realizes that he needs to pull himself out of this funk and get the proper help.

And then, the show just kicks him down again. It's weird and depressing. It's dark and Hartley does a strong job in showing that. It's the way this story can actually be stretched out to an hour. But did it really need that moment where Kevin hits rock bottom by sleeping with his former classmate and stealing her prescription pad? Again, the show is aware that it's a self-destructive moment that he deserves to be punished for. He loses the necklace his father gave him which only gets established as being important in a scene prior to its massive loss. It's clear Jack is still heavily on Kevin's mind. He's hallucinating throughout this entire episode. He's reliving his past glory and defeat. He's seeing the people he has lost along the way. But he's also propping them up as this almost romantic notion of what they represent in terms of happiness in his life. He views Jack as the reason he was happy. His life only started experiencing these peoples after Jack "became" an alcoholic. He views Sophie as his escape from pain. But she wasn't the fix he needed her to be. Not the first time nor the second time. He's propping these relationships up and becoming delusional about what they represent. That's not healthy either. With Sophie, that's basically the show's perspective as well because it's not doing anything to show that she is more complex that that. But again, what's the point of all of this? Kevin gets knocked down and makes even more horrible decisions. They aren't something in the distant past. He is hurting people in the present and the scars are visible for all to see. He knows he has to reach out for help. He needs that. But the show doesn't give it to him. Instead, the narrative is already moving on from all of this to focus on a tragedy that Kate is experiencing right now. That feels disingenuous. It makes it seem like this spiral will continue for Kevin. And that's not something anyone should want any more of this season. But the show is dragging it out which risks alienating some viewers in the process.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Number One" was written by KJ Steinberg and directed by Ken Olin.
  • It's clear these spotlight episodes for Kevin, Kate and Randall are going to be very emotional. And yet, the show is probably doing a disservice to Kate already by coming out and saying what next week's episode for her is going to be about. She suffers a miscarriage. It's impersonal when Randall says it while alienating to Kevin as he seeks help. But next week, it will remove the emotional punch of that story because the audience already knows what the outcome is going to be. That's already disappointing.
  • Of course, it's not ultimately surprising that something like that happened to Kate. Not because she's been predicting it since the moment she got pregnant because of her weight and age. But more because both Kate and Toby are calling Kevin throughout his evening at the high school. That signaled that something was going on and Kevin was too selfish and reckless to answer their calls.
  • Meanwhile, the clock is quickly closing in on the fire that kills Jack as well. The audience knew that as soon as Kevin broke his leg in football that signaled that the fire was fast approaching. So will these spotlight episodes ultimately be building to that moment and show the final interactions the siblings had with their father? Or are they building to some different resolution? With that reveal coming later in the season?
  • It's been bothersome that Kate and Sophie haven't recognized that something is seriously wrong with Kevin over the past few weeks. It's been annoying because they know him. Plus, Sophie is a nurse! It's less annoying here that no one makes much of his horrible and worsening appearance because they don't interact with Kevin on a regular basis. But his behavior should still raise some red flags as well.
  • Again, I can respect the performance Justin Hartley is giving in this episode even while noting how manipulative and annoying the majority of the story actually is. He helps sell the difficult emotions and inner turmoil. But it's just getting more and more frustrating to watch Kevin spiral. A moment of hopefulness is desperately needed.