Beth's solo "This Is Us" episode was as great as you imagined it would be
It took close to three whole seasons, but Beth Pearson finally got an episode of "This Is Us" all to herself. And it did not disappoint, as "Our Little Island Girl" delivered a sparkling, soulful hour of television worthy of one of the show's best characters. It's the closest this author's come to tears (the ultimate "This Is Us" stamp of approval) this season so far – and it's not like we haven't been up to serious, sob-worthy stuff.
The craziest part is that, on paper, "Our Little Island Girl" doesn't sound special at all; in fact, it kind of sounds remarkably cliche. Demanding mothers pushing their kids. An idealistic child's dreams found and lost. A sick parent – and it's always the nice, optimistic one of the two, never the realistic cynic. (As soon as her dad was smilingly convinced Beth's mother to let her pursue dance, I set my death clock ... AND I WAS NOT WRONG TO DO SO.) Add in a few big speeches (this is "This Is Us" after all) and you've got the makings of a good if rote backstory.
But Tuesday night's episode felt anything but rote, and good would feel like a wild understatement – all because of some deft direction from a Hollywood pro and some pitch perfect performances from actors old and new to NBC's tear-jerking monster hit, along with one icon who came to play.
That icon was Phylicia Rashad, last seen on the big screen parenting Adonis Creed to his next big boxing bout in "Creed II." (Just a few less punches in this show, though she did take quite the hip check in her opening scene.) And she is just simply perfect in this episode.
We've all seen the overbearing mother role done and done to death, made into this arch villain who maybe by the end pulls a speech out of nowhere to try to redeem her character for the audience, but Rashad plays the role so warm yet intense – not a bad mom, but one who wants to make sure her child is on a path to success and a better life than herself. Sure, she's a stern taskmaster and realist, the one needing convincing every step of the way, but with Rashad's performance, you feel the parental care as well.
Each line from Rashad was so perfectly warm and cold, sweetly caring and seemingly cruel at the same time in that way that way kids feel all too much without realizing what feels like the latter is actually just more of the former. She's not a villain; she's a mom, and perhaps an overly aggressive taskmaster, and that makes her final words to Beth at the kitchen table, recognizing her role in pushing her daughter away from her dream and not understanding what it meant to her, all the more effective and real.
The whole episode just got those details right. The school where Beth's mom works felt like a real bustling school, not some Hollywood glamorized version of it, and her hip injury, the instigating incident for this entire episode, feels all too right: not some big moment but instead just a seemingly casual bump that got her in just the wrong place. The conversations Beth, Zoe and her mom about career paths and how to apply for jobs, especially the younger family members frustratingly eye-rolling at their parents' old-school disconnect from the modern ways of the working world (MAILING resumes? How quaint ... ) were WAAAY too real, and even the ballet school, coached by Doctor Luka Kovac himself Goran Visnjic, felt accurate, not too melodramatic but just the right amount of tension and rivalry amongst dancers.
(Fittingly, the director this week was series newcomer Anne Fletcher, who helmed "Step Up" – and "The Proposal" and "27 Dresses" and Netflix's "Dumplin'" – but also served as a choreographer before stepping behind the camera regularly. So one gathers she might know about the realities of the dance world and the dramas inside the practice room and inside the dancers' heads.)
The rest of the performances in "Our Little Island Girl" are no less terrific. As usual, the casting department on "This Is Us," especially when it comes to child and teen performers, is ridiculously good at its job; both Young Beth and Teen Beth look just like Susan Kelechi Watson and put in phenomenal, beautiful work – especially the latter as she copes with her father's all-too-quick death and her slowly dying dream, realizing the weight its putting on her family as well as the pressure and guilt on herself all while she's getting passed up in class.
What makes Beth not getting the solo a killer moment isn't just the disappointment; it's her realization that, despite her hard work and dedication, she's falling short. When she's not the soloist, it's not a surprise or a twist for the audience or for the character – and that's the worst part.
But, of course, the spotlight in the Beth solo episode falls most on Kelechi Watson – and after seasons of charming in a smaller role, she makes a meal of this starring moment. Obviously the big speeches at the end – both to her father's chair, in a classic beautiful bit of "This Is Us" editing and overlapping time, and to her mother about how she doesn't regret the path she eventually went down, even if it wasn't wholly hers – are lovely, painfully lived in and heartfelt. (The beat I particularly loved was her grab into air during her final kitchen table chat with her mother, seemingly quite literally taking a moment to take in her mother's words.)
But even before the episode gets around to the heavy lifting, just watching her and Melanie Liburd's Zoe banter perfectly like sisters, practically finishing each other's sentences and rocking out to '80s and '90s R&B on the car ride, was a true treat. The two even made the cliche pot-smoking in the childhood home scene ring true. Several more episodes of just those two hanging out, please.
Maybe another time. It took long enough, after all, for Beth to finally get her time and her due – the lady had to endure Randall's political campaign for heaven's sake; the least you could do is toss her a backstory episode. But when the result is this good, the wait is totally worth it.
Oh, before I forget: Totally called Teen Beth running into a smitten Teen Randall at that college mixer. Was it a little too cute on a storytelling level? Maybe! Was it also tremendously cute and basket-of-puppies level adorable? Abso-friggin-lutely. Plus, it was worth it for the nice full-circle edit later on of Randall dropping her off at dance school as an adult, beginning again and finding her path once more – no one else's.
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