"This Is Us" recap: "Number One" gives Kevin the spotlight and a little sympathy
I've always thought that "This Is Us" would benefit from more solo episodes dedicated to just one or maybe two of its many characters and their scattered timelines. Yes, part of the show's enjoyment is seeing how the past and present intertwine and inform one another, but the constant hopping from adult Randall to teen Randall to teen Kate to adult Kate to baby Kevin to Jack to adult Kevin, etc., sometimes sacrifices depth for a highlight reel of big emotional moments. They work, but I sometimes wonder how much harder they could hit if an episode could really sink its teeth into just one character at a time.
Apparently somebody at NBC agreed, because I got my wish, with "Number One" starting off a three-episode run with each show dedicated to an individual member of the Big Three. WOO!
Annnnd we're starting with Kevin. Well, you can't get everything you want.
I was a little hard on Kevin's storyline last week, spiraling into rock bottom – or at least what seemed like rock bottom at the time – by breaking up with Sophie. I appreciate that "This Is Us" and star Justin Hartley are really trying to give this character some actual meat on his bones, some drama up to the level of his fellow Pearsons, but it's mostly resulted in a lot of heavy cliches and predictable moments, like drunk Kevin missing Sophie's work auction.
The show is normally great at zagging off in a slightly new direction just when you expect it to zig, but with Kevin, it's followed the straight, well-worn "damaged drug-addict actor" path frustratingly without exploring much new territory. And frankly, bringing him back to high school for this episode doesn't quite change that, but giving him a full episode does allow "This Is Us" to fill out his character like it's never done before.
But first, we need several shots of Kevin staring at himself in the mirror and drunkenly gazing out a window into the middle distance – seems about right for a slightly conceited, actorly breakdown. He's eventually shaken out of his haze, however, by a call from his old high school, reminding him of the homecoming awards banquet he's supposed to attend the next day. Oh, and by Martina, the hotel's cleaning lady who recommends he, I don't know, shower at some point. Martina, you the real MVP.
So it's back to Pittsburgh, back to his childhood home – or at least the new house that stands on its ashes – and back to high school, where Kevin is haunted by his teenage glory years, appearing in flashbacks all over the episode. Back then, and there's really no polite way to put this, Kevin was a little sh*t. He even just looks punchable – and that's before the show reveals the cutoff top and pajama pants he planned to wear for his important meeting with the head coach from Pitt.
He eventually changes into a collared shirt, but he doesn't change his attitude, all smugly dismissive toward the coach and then Jack when he calls him out on being insufferably rude. Jack says he doesn't realize how lucky he is; Kevin retorts it's talent instead. Oh, and why should he listen to him when he's an embarrassing alcoholic, fighting his way through AA? It's a tough fight, perfectly acted by both Ventimiglia and Logan Shroyer, the former's fragile demons hiding barely under his attempt at fathering while the latter is a perfectly smug teenager, thinking he's figured it all out at age 15.
On a side note, boy, we sure saw a lot of candles scattered around the house and talked a lot about that blown fuse in these flashbacks, taking place right around the time Jack dies in a house fire. HMMMM!?
Back to adult Kevin, who's wandering through his old school in a daze, drunk on bad wine, pills and memories. But in the real world, he's having very awkward conversations with chipper high school homecoming coordinator Kelly and former classmate Charlotte, who now performs plastic surgery on burn victims in need. Martina, Charlotte, even extremely motivated Kelly whose Snapchat is totally blowing up: Kevin is surrounded by women who are infinitely better than him this episode.
He says as much in his speech accepting the award. What, you thought there WOULDN'T be a dramatic speech? His old football coach intros him – though Kevin sees him as his dad in a nicely done spinning one-take transition – before our mid-meltdown actor says he doesn't deserve an award, that he is not a good person. But still the crowd loves it, cheering like mad and taking selfies afterward.
So the speech went great! Except that only makes things worse for Kevin. He's spent his entire life failing up ever since his brutal football injury, wasting his great life with Sophie by cheating on her ... only to be gifted a million-dollar gig on "The Manny," which he got fired from because of his pride and ego ... only to be gifted both a movie gig AND a second shot with Sophie, which he squandered ... only now to be given an award.
Kevin lays this all out in one of those big, signature "This Is Us" speeches, monologue-ing on the football field while flashbacks of his brutal knee injury mix in. Hartley gives the scene – and this entire episode – his all, but BOY is it a contrived exposition dump of emotions, a real "telling not showing" moment. As a result, the moment doesn't hit quite as hard as it could, but it does at least give us some depth into this character's fall. He's not quite just the cliche anymore, instead filled in as a man punishing himself for having everything and then ruining everything with nothing seemingly holding him accountable but his own growing, insurmountable pile of regret.
Kelly finds him despondent on the football field and asks if he wants to go party – and boy, if there's ever been a time for a plot detour about an older Hollywood actor hanging out with smitten high schoolers, THIS IS NOT IT. I was so nervous after the cut from the commercial break to Kevin in bed with a mysterious female hand crawling up his shirtless chest, but thankfully it was just Charlotte. Phew.
Not that Kevin's out of the woods, though, because while he distracts his old classmate with cooking, he steals her prescription pad to get himself some more painkillers ... only to have to turn back after two cops pop into the Walgreens and also he can't find his father's Vietnam necklace, which Jack gave him after his catastrophic knee injury. We see that scene in another flashback, and it's quite well done; Shroyer again holds his own, childishly almost trying to apologize his way into being healthy and happy again, while the always good Ventimiglia sits comforting but crushingly heartbroken.
While younger Kevin cries for his old life back, adult Kevin returns to Charlotte's house to cry for his necklace back, but she's understandably not about it. Because he stole her medicine pad. And because he literally ran out on her. And because it's, like, 4 in the morning and he's bellowing outside her window. This has to be rock bottom, right? I mean, how much further can we pummel him into the dirt?
You'd be forgiven, though, if you still don't feel completely sorry for this guy. There's a shot near the end of Randall, Kate and him coming out of the hospital, and you realize Kevin's problems are the first world problems of this show. Randall's had to deal with an adoption identity crisis, being black in America, meeting his drug-addict father and now adopting a kid going through a traumatic childhood. Kate's coping with a weight problem that's slowly killing her and the constant struggle of being a woman in a male-dominated world.
And then there's Kevin, who's just a mediocre, sad, conceited white dude who's failed up and out of everything good that's happened to him.
This first one-off episode did a fine job of bringing Kevin to life a little bit, bringing some substance and sympathy to his cliche struggles and digging into his desperation. But when the ending brings Randall and Kate back into the fold and busts out the episode's big twist – Kate, who's been calling and ignored the whole episode, lost the baby – "Number One" can't hide that Kevin is still the third place character on the show.
This Is Sadness Rankings
I remained pretty dry-eyed during this episode – though any scene with Jack is a tear risk because his AA struggle and how weak it makes him feel is brutal to see (and beautifully performed) and the flashbacks are so close to his impending death. But I'm going to give this a higher score preemptively for next week's episode, which ... oof, just looks like it's going to be rough. Even Toby looks sad and angry. So I give this a Bill Hader Warning You He's Gonna Cry – And It's Gonna Be Weird:
So like a five out of 10.
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