Tuesday, January 23, 2018

REVIEW: 'This Is Us' - Kevin Makes Amends While Randall Thinks About the Future in 'That'll Be the Day'

NBC's This Is Us - Episode 2.13 "That'll Be the Day"

Kevin helps Randall and Beth with a project. Kate contemplates a big gift for Toby. Jack and Rebecca talk about their future.

Jack's death has been built up as such a huge event for This Is Us. It passed being an annoying narrative device a long time ago. The entire narrative seems to revolve around that heartbreaking moment. But the show has always presented itself as a mystery puzzle. Some weeks would provide the audience with new clues and some wouldn't. As such, it took some of the enjoyment out of the narrative. And now, the time has finally come for the show to reveal the details of Jack's death. It mostly just feels agonizing that it's going to be spread out across two episodes. That's a weird choice. It's even weirder that one of these episodes happens to be airing after the Super Bowl. That's not to say that that episode can't be great. It's just not the episode that would be the most uplifting one to watch after the big game. This show does have a reputation for being uplifting after all. That may not be completely fair because most of the time it's manipulating the audience's emotions through very dark twists with the characters. This family has been through a lot this year. Most of it has been executed in such a weird way that has lessoned my enjoyment of the show overall. But again, a lot of that can be traced back to the massive event that is Jack's death. It's the most important thing and it's been shrouded in mystery across two seasons now. In the life of the show, the episodes will be defined as before and after his death. It's a pivotal moment that is now upon us.

Jack's death needed to happen this season as well. The first season kept teasing and teasing it as soon as it was first revealed as some grand mystery. The finale didn't pay that off. He was kept alive for another season. Then, the second season premiere featured a whole host of clues for that tragedy. It laid out how he died and where the rest of the family was in the aftermath. It presented so many clues that this season has had to fill in when it told stories in that specific point in time. So, Kate has a dog, Randall has a girlfriend and Kevin has a giant cast on his leg. And then, the previous episode ended on the ominous note of Rebecca having forgotten to buy batteries for the smoke detector. That was a cheap trick to build suspense for the audience that desperately needs an answer to this grand mystery. It mostly felt like the show grasping for straws in order to fill out the plot. It made it seem pretty obvious that Jack's death was coming soon. Heading into "That'll Be the Day," that was simply the headspace I was in. And it's honestly not a bad idea to have this momentous event occur two-thirds of the way through the season. That will allow the remaining episodes a chance to focus on the aftermath as well as forge a new way forward for the characters in the present so that they can stop lingering on these pent up feelings that they've constantly had across two seasons now.

But even if you didn't go into this episode thinking that it'll be the hour that Jack dies, there are so many abundant clues. There are just so many familiar tropes being deployed that signal that something very melodramatic and big is about to happen in that corner of this universe. All three of the kids are pushing back on Jack's relentless optimism. They are all disappointing him in some way - mostly because they don't want to watch the Super Bowl with him. Kate and Randall eventually come back to apologize but Kevin doesn't because he thinks he'll have tomorrow to do so. Meanwhile, Jack and Rebecca are planning for the future. That's ominous because the audience knows that that future will never come. It's tragic that way and prepares the audience for the devastation that is just around the corner. All of these clues are evident in the context of the show as well. The premiere laid out all the evidence for the night that the fire destroyed the Pearson house. It had to wait until Kate had a dog, Randall had a girlfriend and Kevin had a cast. Those events all occurred. But it's also important that Kevin is just out of the house when all of this is happening. He's too busy kissing Sophie when Rebecca, Kate and Randall are so completely destroyed over Jack's death. And so, it's easy to see the narrative twisting it's way to Kevin being the only one out of the house. This isn't inherently bad either. The show presented these clues so that they would be obvious later on when the narrative caught up. It's just annoying here because it's elongated a little too much.

Plus, the episode also thinks it's necessary to tell the origin story of the object that ultimately starts the fire. That's weird and unusual. The hour opens on a completely random old couple, George and Sally, selling their house. George wants to reminisce about all the junk still in the garage while Sally is determined to throw it all away. It seems like a random inclusion but this show has trained the audience to never think that something is random. It's just odd how it always needs to offer an explanation for every little detail no matter how trivial it seems. At first, it seems like this couple own the house that Jack and Rebecca are interested in flipping to get their new business started. But then, it's revealed that it was George who gifted a young Jack and Rebecca with the crockpot that would eventually short-circuit and start the fire. The narrative thinks that needed an origin story. It does the same for the towel that happens to be sitting right next to it - though that just happens in a brief flash defined by Jack gifting Rebecca with some new jewelry. Both of these moments feel like something the show would do. It just doesn't feel necessary. It highlights how there is always a story underneath everything in this world. There is always some history that many just don't know about. But the audience also has to question if that is relevant information or just padding for extra time in this hour?

And so, the house starts on fire while the family is asleep. It's an intense ending. It's coupled with a montage of flashbacks showing all of the memorable moments this family has shared in this house. It's an emotional moment because the audience knows what's coming next. But it also comes at the end of this hour. So, Jack's death is still delayed for another episode. Again, that's not completely surprising because the show still has to pay off why Kate blames herself for what happened. These new details don't provide any clarity with that. However, her story with Toby might. He says that he knows having a dog is a complicated thing for her. She has to overcome those personal issues in order to give him what he really wants. That basically makes it abundantly clear that Jack will die because he has to go back into the house to rescue Kate's dog. That's tragic and seems a little too obvious. So hopefully, the show won't drag that out completely. The small personal moments between this family is still where the show shines the most. Jack's death has affected all of them in completely unexpected and tragic ways. The siblings can only have matured so much because the show has withheld information from the audience up until now. But the present day stories are all doing a nice job in allowing the siblings to move forward and past these ongoing issues. It's poignant to hear Randall talk about how Jack has been gone longer than they had him. That's sad and tragic. His fear of not outliving him doesn't make much sense. But again, Sterling K. Brown sells that moment. And Justin Hartley sells the moment where his chain is returned to him just as he accepts that the only person he still has to apologize to is his father. That's really emotional and healthy because it shows awareness on the show's part that all of his issues stem from a lack of connection with his father. All of that is compounded here with the fact that their last conversation wasn't pleasant. That's melodramatic but has the potential of being very rewarding. The next episode is all set up to be outstanding by finally giving the audience the answers to this long-coming mystery. But it has to be completely willing to pay it off without lingering too much on stuff that just doesn't matter.

Some more thoughts:
  • "That'll Be the Day" was written by Kay Oyegun & Don Roos and directed by Uta Briesewitz.
  • It's also important to note that Randall and Beth are living the dream that Jack and Rebecca never got to have. They were making all of these plans to go into business together flipping houses. It will never happen because of the fire. But now, Randall and Beth are doing just that with this new apartment building. That's every parents' dream. For their kids to have the opportunities they never got. So, it's very moving to watch.
  • Of course, it's not surprising in the slightest that Randall and Kevin expect everything to go the way they want just because of Randall's optimism and Kevin's celebrity. In the end, it's Beth's actual knowledge and experience that turns out to be right. Randall and Kevin fixing things in this building is more comedic than the rest of the episode. But it also shows that the Pearsons are well-intentioned despite being horribly wrong and destructive to people's lives over and over again.
  • Why was Alexandra Breckenridge promoted to series regular this season? Kevin and Sophie's relationship was important. But then, Kevin's story took that turn into addiction. It was annoying that Sophie didn't notice it at all. She just disappeared after that because it was no longer a healthy or romantic relationship. Everything seems to come to a definitive end here too. So, it's just strange that Breckenridge got that promotion only to be cut shortly thereafter. Unless there is more coming which seems like a bad decision right now.
  • I understand that Lena Waithe is much more of a writer than an actor. But that was such a thankless part that the show gave her as the woman at the rescue shelter. Yes, it provides a significant boost for diversity statistics in guest starring roles. But that's probably the only benefit. She's an Emmy winner appearing on one of the biggest shows with absolutely nothing to do but deliver just some very minor exposition about Audio the dog.
  • Conversely, it's a lot of fun just seeing Garrett Morris continue to pop up as one of the tenants in Randall and Beth's new building. He's clearly playing everything for the comedy. And it works. He is also joined by Dawnn Lewis. She doesn't get much to do here but should continue to appear too. Of course, does it make financial sense for Randall and Beth to drive to this building all the time? That seems expensive since it isn't close to where they live.
  • As soon as it was announced that This Is Us would be getting the post-Super Bowl slot, there was speculation that that episode would be the one to feature Jack's death. It's the detail that the audience is most obsessed about. The answer will be presented to the broadest audience the show will ever get. And yet, will it be accessible to newcomers? Or is it just the show airing a regular episode so that it makes sense when the entire season is available to view later on?