In Movies & TV Reviews

Yeah, me too, Randall and Beth.

"This Is Us" accurately recreates being stuck in a room with annoying people

I'm no screenwriting expert – though I play one on the internet! – but I'd say that if your television episode ends with most of the cast apologizing for having to sit with them for the past 45 minutes, something may have gone awry.

Props to Tuesday night's episode of "This Is Us," I suppose, for committing to the bit: an entire bottle episode seemingly trapped inside a hospital waiting room while the Pearsons anxiously bounce off the walls and each other, the stress keeping them in the same space but pulling them apart at the same time. It's just the bit isn't very dramatically compelling, resulting in an episode stuck spinning its wheels while the passengers can't stop bickering at one another. I watch television to avoid strained, awkward, passive aggressive and unproductive conversations between family members, not to be subjected to it.

Jokes aside, there's a version of this concept that really works, that tensely boils the strain growing between family members to thrilling ends, that finds variety in the episode's confinements, and moves the characters and emotions even without being able to psychically move them out of a space. But that version wasn't "The Waiting Room," a repetitive holding pattern that feels like stalling for more eventful episodes to come.

While Toby and Kate are hidden away behind ER doors, the latter battling for her baby's life, the rest of the Pearsons are battling each other with grumbles in the waiting room. Kevin's irritable because he's hungover from his relapse, a shame that he feels with every glance from every person in the room – including Zoe, who's wondering if she can trust Kevin just when she started to feel safe. Randall and Beth barely have words for one another since his recommendation that Beth put a pin in her newly awoken dancing passion, while Miguel tries to keep people distracted with a game of "Chocolate Or Ranch," in which you try to name a food that isn't improved with one or the other. Spoiler: It doesn't work – and neither do the zippy, bright hummingbirds on the TV or the random lady munching on a thunderously loud bag of Rold Golds. (The official snack of almost, but not quite, deflating family tensions!)

Meanwhile Becca seems like she's blazed, cutting through the tension while observations like the wall outlets look like surprised faces or the pattern on the chairs looks like bacteria. Somebody hit a joint on the way to the hospital – except she's got a case of the anti-munchies, eventually solved when Beth finally gets her to nibble on a doughnut or else. She's not numbed by weed, however; she's numbed by memories and tragedy. In one of the show's finer and few weighty notes, she tells the doctor passing along a rare update that, "This family stays," a reminder of how Jack died and how a short trip to the vending machine turned into a long trip to emotional hell for Becca.

As for the rest of the characters, it's a little less obvious why they're all stuck in this self-made prison save for keeping the drama swirling. Randall and Beth continue to get nowhere with their marital tensions, while Kevin and Randall continue to butt heads over everything from asking doctors for updates to borrowing phone chargers. The only thing they seem to agree on is that Miguel is annoying them, who himself is growingly peeved at being treated as an outsider wearing a permanent visitors badge to the Pearson family. And that's all before he and Becca announce that they're going to move out to California to be closer to Kate, Toby and the new baby hopefully still on the way.

Between Miguel and Madison, the non-Pearsons fare far better this episode, as the hour shines a spotlight on the clan's bundle of nerves, unresolved family trauma and just general self-absorbed behavior that "This Is Us" usually buffers with cozier feelings and victories. And while I appreciate the show calling many of the characters out, it doesn't translate to a particular engaging hour. Rather, you can feel the show becoming background noise while you're watching it. The goal is a pressure cooker episode, but the petty arguments flame in and out in circles quickly, never building up much as a collective. Instead of escalating, it just feels tediously repetitive – and instead of reaching a breaking point of interest or introspection, the episode just kind of peters out with a collective "our bad."

The closest thing we get to a reveal or revelation is that the bottle of water Kevin was swigging from the entire episode was filled with vodka – a surprising twist to no one save for Zoe, who finds it out the hard way when she goes for a sip. Kev's certainly in a bad place, but he was in about the same bad place last week. Oh, and also the correct answer to Miguel's "Chocolate Or Ranch" game is ... chocolate and ranch. I'm going to need to double check with Secaucus on that call, however, because ranch and sushi seems grossly out of culinary bounds.

The main breakthrough, however, comes at the very end when Toby finally emerges for an update on Kate and the baby: There was an emergency C-section, but both Kate and the baby – who, of course, she wants to name Jack – are alive. The latter, however, is fighting for its life in the NICU, and Toby seems deeply scared and flustered by how small and weak their child is. But more on that next week. As for this week? There's not much more to say after this 45-minute annoyingly accurate recreation of being stuck in a room with grumpy people other than, "Thanks for putting up with us."

I always appreciate when "This Is Us" plays with its formula and reins in its focus, but "The Waiting Room" was the rare case of a self-contained episode that I'd rather forget than remember.


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