Tuesday, January 9, 2018

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Kevin Shares His Perspective of the Pearson Family Past in 'The Fifth Wheel'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.11 "The Fifth Wheel"

The Pearsons come together under unexpected circumstances. Jack surprises the family with a summer vacation.

This Is Us closed its fall run of episodes with three spotlight episodes for Kevin, Kate and Randall in which a tragic event happened in each of their lives at the exact same time. It was a ridiculous and manipulative conceit. Kevin spiraled further into his tragic addiction at the same time that Kate had a miscarriage and Randall had to give Deja back to her mother. In the individual episodes, those stories wouldn't have been annoying. But the fact that the show made sure the audience knew they were happening concurrently was incredibly frustrating and made it seem like the latest narrative trick the show did to hit the audience with some profound emotions. After all of that tragedy, there should be a collective sigh of relief in the first episode back. And yet, that's a little impossible because those three episodes also ended on the cliffhanger of Kevin being arrested for a DUI while Tess was hiding in the backseat. That was a cheap cliffhanger that ensured that life for the Pearsons would still be very intense and traumatic in the first episode back. Sure, there is some relief throughout "The Fifth Wheel" because the story moves forward a month. Kevin has completed his court-ordered stint in rehab. The rest of the family is rallying around him to see how he is doing in therapy. It turns into an episode that analyzes the family history of the Pearsons without actually revealing anything new. It's a lot of rehashing of things that have been made perfectly clear to the audience over the course of the show. But the characters need to actually say them to each other. There is a sense of catharsis to that. And yet, it also makes the show once again all about the Pearsons while just casually dismissing the impact their actions have on the rest of the world.

This narrative has always been incredibly twisted. Because it has the dual narrative of seeing what's going on in the present and how it is informed by the past, it's been a show that has featured a number of surprising reveals that have the potential to shade in a new corner of our understanding of these characters. The past stories with Jack, Rebecca and the young kids serve as thematic guidance for what's happening in the present-day. There is no consistent storyline with the past. Each episode bounces around from different time periods for whichever story suits the thematic needs of the present day stories. Yes, there's been some narrative consistency with the story of Jack struggling with his alcoholism in the months leading up to his death. But the show is back to showing a simple family vacation when the kids were nine this week because it suits the needs of the family therapy session. Again, there's nothing bad with that. But it also has the feeling of the show really hitting the audience over the head with the emotional manipulation. The story in the past is all about these issues in the family being systemic. Kevin has always felt like the outsider. Randall has always sought perfection. Kate has always struggled with weight. It just takes some of the nuance out of the specific situations because they seem to define everything these characters have ever done in their entire lives. It makes them more one-note which is such a frustrating detail. The story is more powerful when the show can surprise us with something new about these characters that comes out of the blue and isn't defined by these lifelong issues.

There's also just a lot of blaming of the past and the specific traumas that this family has endured. Kevin, Kate, Randall and Rebecca are all in a therapy session for the majority of this episode. Guest star Kate Burton is forcing them to confront each other about these specific situations she has heard about through Kevin's therapy. But it also just hit me the wrong way. It's basically Kevin blaming his poor behavior on his upbringing and the generational pattern of addiction in this family. He doesn't seem to be taking any of the blame or responsibility for his own destructive behavior. That's just so off-putting. Beth has a line early in the episode saying that she's angry at Kevin not only for putting her daughter in harm's way but endangering everyone else on the road because he got behind the wheel while he was drunk. That's a significant concern. Kevin knowingly put other lives at risk. The show just wants to casually dismiss that and make this entire story about the Pearson family at large. That's just such a weird creative decision. It fits into the overall narrative of the show. The Pearsons and their history have always been the most important thing. They all see the world in the same way. Their bonds are so incredibly close. But those relationships are destructive as well. The show only rarely wants to show just how damaging these bonds can actually be. It would be so simple if Kevin can just blame his parents not loving him enough for his recent behavior. He talks to his family about how they all encourage addictive behavior. Kevin's not wrong in suggesting that he and his siblings are all addicts - Kevin with alcohol and fame, Randall with perfection and Kate with food. Nor is he wrong in saying that Rebecca and Jack possibly made the wrong decision in not informing the kids enough about Jack's own problems with addiction. But that still ultimately feels like a crutch instead of actually treating these problems.

Of course, the show also seems like it's going to move past the blaming of the family of it all in the future. This episode highlights the importance of getting these feelings out there so that they can try to understand each other. Randall wants to support Kevin because he did the same for him last year. Kate needs to be there for Kevin because she can't believe she didn't see the warning signs of his behavior. Rebecca needs to prove that she loves all of her kids equally. Tense words are shared during the therapy sessions. Barbara makes sure that Kevin says what he needs to say while also helping him prove his point. It turns out to be a minor role that doesn't really justify casting Kate Burton - unless she'll be recurring. The discussion gets especially heated with the family just throwing accusations at each other. Kevin believes no one stands up for him in this family. That's ridiculous given everything we know about his relationship with Kate. And yes, everything does ultimately pivot around Jack and how he died during a really formative time for the three siblings. But there is less weight put on that specific tragedy in determining the future and destructive behavior of the siblings because the show always wants to play things as these issues always being present in their lives. Yes, Jack's death could have made these problems significantly worse. The show is definitely shining a light on how this family became split because of that tragedy. But it also wants them to be incredibly close because of that shared tragedy. There's a lot of trying to have it all ways. Kevin wants to believe all of this. But the episode also needs him to make up with Kevin, Randall and Rebecca by the end of the hour. Again, it's sweet and necessary. He can't blame his upbringing for his current problems. But there isn't a call to action for more self-reflection with Kevin that will help him deal with his issues in the future so that he doesn't relapse.

Meanwhile, Beth, Toby and Miguel go to a bar together. That's a subplot in this episode that at first seems quite amusing. It's the show giving those three a chance in the spotlight even though their concerns really aren't the point of this episode at all. It's the show basically realizing that the three of them would be a part of this experience while also shuffling them to the side because they aren't technically members of the Pearson family. That's lame. Beth and Miguel certainly are. They have forged lives with Randall and Rebecca. They've been in this family for years. But there isn't much interest in looking at the state of the Pearson family as it is right now. There is too much lingering on the past and refusing to move on from it. This subplot quickly turns annoying because it's fundamentally about the three of them complaining about how they are the new outsiders in this family. They can relate to each other because the Pearsons all react the same way to certain things. But it's also significantly easier to relate to what Beth is feeling right now because she actually has a point. Her anger towards Kevin is real and genuine. She has a thought out argument against him that is practical and realistic even though the show doesn't want to explore it right now. Meanwhile, Toby is basically complaining about how he doesn't know how to talk to his fiancé. He continues to be so bad. The show keeps wanting the audience to see Toby and Kate as a great romantic couple. She ultimately comes clean about her junk food. But this failure to communicate and relate to each other - and trust each other - should just signal so much doom for them. And then, Miguel plays as nothing more than a punchline. Of course, it's a punchline with a point in saying that Jack did mean something and his death is something that they can't just toss aside because it's inconvenient for them at the moment. But it doesn't have the sense that that admission will ultimately change anything.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Fifth Wheel" was written by Vera Herbert and directed by Chris Koch.
  • Okay, the show indulges in the meta a little too much when Kevin says everything has to be "the Randall show" during the group therapy session. The Randall show has frequently been the most effective part of this series because it is constantly forging ahead and dealing with things in a mature way. It's just as twisty and melodramatic as the other stories. But it actually works because of Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson. Kevin says it as a criticism even though he really doesn't have a leg to stand on.
  • Kevin is really lashing out at his family. Him getting his facts wrong and not really caring how others could have a different perspective is what makes it hard to sympathize with him right now. Yes, Randall brought William to live with his family without asking them first. But the decision to bring Deja into their lives was a mutual and longterm conversation that he and Beth had that they included Tess and Annie in once it became more serious.
  • Why are Miguel, Toby and Beth so desperate to be a part of the Pearson family anyway? It's the show's complete belief that the Pearson family is the only family that actually matters. That's not true. But the show just wants to completely forget that Miguel has another daughter from his previous marriage and that Beth has several sisters and that Toby presumedly has parents. Those details should give them a feeling of satisfaction in terms of family. But they are desperately craving acceptance in the Pearson world which is so strange.
  • The 1980s story with the summer vacation at the cabin is actually pretty terrible. It's a story the show has already done so many times. Rebecca has had that talk with Jack before about how she is always the bad cop in the family. Rebecca has had this one-sided worry about Kate's weight. Kevin has had this tendency to pick on Randall every opportunity he gets. The only thing new are Randall's glasses which became a strange plot point as well.
  • There is absolutely no reason why Randall's big monologue to Kevin that connects going to the eye doctor with their differing opinions about their childhood should work. It's just so odd and doesn't feel like something a normal human being would say or even distinctly remember. It just makes for a good actor moment. It only works because Sterling K. Brown is a tremendous performer and can elevate even the most awkward of writing.