"This Is Us" recap: "Landslide" brings it down as "The Manny" returns
The second episode of "This Is Us" season two was a pleasantly rare non-twist entry in the series – unless you count the return of "The Manny," which "Manny say whaaaaaa?!" indeed.
"A Manny-Splendored Thing" brings Kevin back to the scene of the television crime – with the rest of the family in tow, as they come to Los Angeles to watch a taping of his character's very special, Clooney on "ER"-esque return trip to the show. Or to ostensibly watch a taping of the show, because most of the Pearsons bail – either due to family drama (Randall and Beth), a surprise singing gig (Kate, Toby and Rebecca) or just a general hatred of the "The Manny" (Beth). At least Miguel was happy. And he got pigs in a blanket! Big episode for Miguel.
Overall, it was a very "This Is Us" episode. Some of it worked like gangbusters, some of it felt unearned or frustrating on a story level, all of it was performed well and all of it was assaulting your heartstrings like madness – and that was before "Landslide" showed up for a key montage.
While Kevin's story brings everyone together, Kate gets most of the spotlight this week as she gets a call shortly before "The Manny" taping that she's needed to sub in to sing with the house band from last week. I think this was my big hangup with this storyline; it's frustrating to jump from last week's big moment of realizing she just isn't a good enough singer right now, from the band leader quickly splashing cold water on her abilities (but also noting its not her weight that's holding her back), to all of a sudden she's performing with the band that bluntly rejected her.
As a result, the storyline just felt like it cheated a bit to get to "Landslide," the big emotional montage surrounding it and the big Rebecca/Kate confrontation, of Kate being mad at her mother for being so perfect – which is to say mad at herself for, in her mind, being so imperfect. It's well sung and very nicely acted – even Toby was a level of tolerable this week, though I still don't need his every line to include a little comedic catchphrase – but it didn't feel earned enough for such a big melodramatic speech moment. It felt more like the story forcing itself to go there rather than it naturally developing to that point.
Speaking of frustratingly taking a U-turn from last week, just in time for the paperwork, Randall is now squeamish about adopting an older kid, putting off filling out the questionnaire. Beth is understandably annoyed, pacing away her anger by walking all over the studio set. What could be an annoying stall from last week's growth, however, comes to life because, dammit, Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson are so good together.
Even when the storyline doesn't earn it, they make all the feelings work; they seem funny and sweet and frustrated, and it all hits. And even though it's mildly frustrating to have another episode of doubt creeping in after moving forward last week, the storyline finds the emotional nuances in why, as Randall is concerned an older child will come in with problems they have no idea how to handle.
Also, Beth having absolutely no time for "The Manny" gives me life. Actually, pretty much nobody (outside of Miguel) having time for "The Manny" this episode gave me life.
As usual, Kevin's storyline is given the shortest shrift, heading back to the breakthrough sitcom that broke him only to get caught reenacting his big season one tirade (why he decided to do that on set, even playfully, is baffling). So the director gets his revenge by shoving him into a diaper during his big return episode.
But Kevin survives his humiliation by knowing he makes Sophie happy, which is a nice sweet button for an otherwise slight storyline – and for the episode's overall "Lean on Me" theme. While young Kate may never get to sing the hit at the talent show because of her nerves and self-confidence, the song lingers over the episode as Kevin leans on Sophie, Beth and Randall lean on each other and, in the past, Jack learns he has to lean on Rebecca and Kate to get off the wagon again.
Indeed, the '80s flashback this week fills in the blanks of how Jack ditched drinking the first time, sheer force of will, AA meeting drop-ins and punching his anger and addiction out at a local boxing gym (a nice call-out to Milo Ventimiglia's "Rocky Balboa" role, which is a good "Rocky" movie! Really!). But now the drinking's back, and he realizes he can't just power through it – plus his tough childhood and memories of Vietnam, which we see for the first time tonight and will maybe see more of in the future – alone again. He needs Rebecca and he needs the kids, especially Kate, to lean on this time.
Honestly, I didn't think much of Ventimiglia heading into this show, but he's turning in some of my favorite TV performances here alongside Brown and Moore (who impressively sparks warm chemistry with everybody she interacts with across every timeline). Like he did late in last week's premiere, he sells Jack's struggle without going too hard or overplaying his hand, and when Kate takes his head into her hands – both as a child and as a teen – to comfort him, it's the kind of killing heart-tugging the show can pull off so well.
So yeah, "A Manny-Splendored Thing" was very much a classic "This Is Us" experience, an emotional buffet where, if one subplot or character's not really doing it for you, they've got plenty of other options that'll probably satisfy. It's rare that everything clicks in an episode, but it's even more rare for nothing to click, thanks to the darling cast – and the occasional assist from Stevie Nicks.
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