"This Is Us" recap: The Pearsons battle chicken pox, racism and a big new twist
"Still There" was unfortunately the kind of episode that made me wary of watching "This Is Us" in the first place. It was preachy. It was melodramatic and monologue-happy. It tackled difficult issues with after-school special simplicity and heavy-handedness. If you think "This Is Us" is a glitzed-up, shiny Hallmark series, "Still There" is not the episode to convince you otherwise.
While Tuesday night's episode showcased several of the show's weaknesses, however, it luckily also showed off many of its strengths, many of its attributes that, even when "This Is Us" is being very "This Is Us"-like, can still result in a pretty good hour of television. The show still features some strong storylines, a lot of beautiful performances and an ability to shock the audience with a clever turn or twist – even a year now into knowing they should be coming.
On that note: So Kate's pregnant! SURPRISE! After another episode of seemingly having off, her plot line seemingly just that Toby thinks she's tackling her weight loss goals too hard, all of a sudden Kate gets a bombshell of a reveal – and a very cleverly pulled off misdirect. Last season, many complained that Kate's storyline was one-dimensional, always focused on her weight, and season two's explicitly addressed that – from the audition from the premiere, to her performance in front of her mom and now a baby, which opens up all new story paths for Kate's character and her relationship with Rebecca. It's a great twist, not only because it was sneakily and effectively done but because it makes you excited for what comes next.
It also helps redeem what was otherwise an often frustrating storyline, mostly because of my pal Toby, which let's talk Toby. Now, I've gone on the record that I think Toby is the antichrist. The show insists that he's funny and charming and sweet, with all his one-liners, but fails to realize that he's pushy, weirdly territorial and irritatingly dismissive of Kate's goals. And all of that showed up tonight, as he spends tonight's episode in a harrumph because Kate, to him, seems overly obsessive about her weight loss ... despite little evidence in the episode of that.
Part of this is on the writing; the show tries to jump right into "Kate's being crazed about her weight," but the result is Toby telling Kate – and the audience – that she's being obsessive when we've seen nothing of the sort recently. The only sign in the beginning is that ... she's working out and wants to pass on a muffin? It's a classic show, don't tell problem – but having Toby be the messenger here especially doesn't help since, from his earliest episodes, he's annoyingly refused to take her efforts to improve herself seriously. She has a goal to be healthy – and from all appearances, is doing so in healthy ways – and yet he gets pissy that she wants to finish exercising and go to yoga.
He just always seems like he's forcing his carefree attitude onto Kate, who wants better for herself, and onto the audience, which EVERY LINE DOESN'T NEED TO BE A GAG. It'll be interesting to see how he handles the baby bombshell. Time to start taking life a little more seriously, ol' Tobes.
That wasn't even the least of the storylines this week, unfortunately, as that title belongs to the Jack and Rebecca check-in with the grade school Big Three. Chicken pox has made its way to the Pearsons – all except Randall, who spends the whole episode doing his damnedest to catch everyone's disease; it's adorable. But a greater ailment has struck the household: Rebecca's mom.
My apologies to Toby (a phrase I never thought I'd say), but THIS LADY is the antichrist, condescending to Rebecca and especially Jack, nudging Kate toward her future body issues, convincing Kevin his face is his only attribute and, most egregious, dropping little racist notes into all her comments about Randall. I, too, would go outside on a cold, snowy day while battling sickness to shovel her car out and GET. HER. OUT. Bring on the frostbite and pneumonia; they're better than getting Randall three basketballs and being surprised he's the one in private school.
It's a very noble and well-meaning subplot. If you're going to have a frustratingly, simplistically shallow racist on the show, having Elizabeth Perkins play her is probably a best case situation. All the performers are lovely, from the predictable (Milo and Mandy) to the less predictable (all the kid actors are stellar), and any storyline with includes both that cute video store sequence and Jack and Kevin growling away their chicken pox itches can't be all bad.
But it all felt like a very clean and easy attempt to tackle racism. The result is some really heavy-handed monologues, with Mandy Moore aggressively telling her mother that "You're a racist!" in a way that played more authentic to 2017 than the time period they're actually living in. It's just too woke, breaking down subtle and systematic racism in ways we're still struggling with now – and then, by the end of the episode, curing a lifetime of racism in less than 45 minutes with a nice speech and a charming one-liner. If only, "This Is Us."
But while that storyline took a little stumble, other ones – like every week on this very busy show – picked up the slack. The show continues to grow out Kevin into a real character. This week, producer Brian Grazer catches Kevin hiding his busted knee – which we learn was fractured in the past, killing what looked like a promising football future – and tells him to recuperate. Kevin decides on surgery, but also tries to blaze through the healing process – with the help of those ominous pills from last week. It's some frustratingly dim behavior (so much so Toby seems reasonable) in a borderline cliche plot – with the least convincing, highest-definition '90s home video footage ever seen – but it's nice to see Kevin's character finally filling in with some color.
Then there's Randall's plot line, still struggling with Deja. But while Randall gets some big moments – getting in the face of a parent whose child made fun of Deja's dirty hair, or singing THAT GREAT ANTIBIOTIC SONG – this plot line belonged to Susan Kelechi Watson's Beth. Not just because of the big speeches, but because of the little reactions, like the small, truly touched smile when Deja finally asked her to do her hair or the way she oh-so-carefully pried away Deja's armor when talking about her alopecia-induced hair loss.
It's all so warm and beautifully performed – which makes it all the more devastating at the end when Randall tries to do his part, recommending running with him to help with the stress, and only ends up destroying the trust built between Beth and Deja – so much so Deja goes scorched earth on her new hair and snips it to hell.
It's opposite of the race subplot this week, being honest about the situation's awkwardness and difficulty while still fitting in that saccharine but sincere "This Is Us" sweetness. And also great antibiotic songs.
So, perhaps fittingly for an episode about people trying to tough out tough situations – chicken pox scratching, racist moms, busted knees – "Still There" was a tougher watch for me than most. But for every slip-up, there's something to redeem even a lesser "This Is Us" – just like its characters.
Except you, Toby.
This Is Sadness Rankings
A big night for twists and turns, a low night for tears. And even if you were moved by Tuesday's episode – and while I'm a little low on this week, there's still plenty to be moved by – it was a pleasant tear if anything. So I give it a Choked-Up Knowing Smile Between Jim Halpert and Michael Scott:
So like a two out of 10.
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