5 takeaways from the first standout episode of the new "This Is Us" season
I've always preached that the best episodes of "This Is Us" are the ones that focus on a character or two, or one particular moment given room to breathe. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the first great episode of this young season is exactly that: a honed-in hour that zeroes in on the Randall side of the Pearson clan, mainly using two dinners decades apart but both serving up looks at race, family and how different perspectives clash.
And unsurprisingly considering that description, a whole heaping mess of awkward is on the menu at both. Let's dig into the five biggest takeaways from "The Dinner and the Date" – beyond the fact that Beth has a hidden bottle of wine in the pantry ready for whenever things get too real.
1. Guess who's coming for dinner
Back in the past, the Pearsons come through on their dinner offer to Randall's beloved English teacher, Mr. Lawrence – and somehow Young Kevin announcing that he has a crush on his teacher's boobs isn't the most uncomfortable part.
In fact, that might not even make the top five most awkward moments at their dinner, as Jack takes the opportunity to subtly (OK, not so subtly) defend his place as the key role model in Randall's life. He's clearly on a mission to impress – from hosting the dinner in the first place to putting on a suit jacket that even Becca can't believe and then trying to brag about the bookshelf he made for Randall after his son shows off that he's borrowed Mr. Lawrence's organizational technique. (Emphasis on "trying," since he kind of just ends up listing off types of wood.) Things eventually reach a head at dinner itself, when a monthly African culture festival is brought up and Jack a little too eagerly volunteers to take Randall, as least a little in part to block Mr. Lawrence from doing it.
There's a fascinating territorial tension going on, with Jack as just a father coming to terms with his son meeting new role models – but it's made even more complex, compelling and, yes, often cringe-inducing by the added complication of race, of Jack struggling (as he did last week on the golf course) with no longer always having the answers to his black son's increasingly complicated questions. And now, he's facing somebody who does – or at least has the life experience and insight as a black man in America to help Randall through his growing awareness – and is terrified of being replaced or, worse, letting down his son.
It's a fascinating discussion – one that, thanks to the smart writing, direction and performances, both accurately makes six awkward minutes feel more like 12 and also flies by, an episode where you want spend more time with these people chatting out these complicated feelings ... even while you're desperately wanting it to end because of all the cringe. It's made even more interesting by the episode's willingness – a rare one for "This Is Us" – to allow Jack to be flawed, to be awkward and grasping and petty and out of his depths. It's not a particularly subtle episode, but it's not didactic or some speech-happy "very special episode" either, instead letting these conflicts and interactions just play out (often times painfully) in real discussions that don't come up often on television.
Plus, the episode gives room for Mr. Lawrence's perspective as well – including a quietly heartbreaking moment near the end as he tells Jack that, as much as he seems like this idol to Randall now, he'll always just be a teacher – a transient person in his life who will eventually be a footnote in his story – and Jack will always be his dad. It's a subtle tribute to teachers, these people who go into an unappreciated (and certainly underpaid) job, who always seem to remember every student's name and who try to make a positive impact on their kids' lives and minds, even if those students will go on to totally forget them and never see them again.
In the end, it's the best episode that you wish would end for god's sake before the awkwardness kills us all – and we still have a whole other uncomfortable dinner to get to ...
2. Guess who's ALSO coming for dinner
Because in case there wasn't enough cringe going on in the past, Randall and Beth also decided to host a dinner for Malik's parents in the present – and if the other dinner was awkward, this meal made you want to melt out of your chair and through the floorboards to escape the discomfort.
In other words: It was a great time!
Randall's mission goes beyond cooking up a meal; he wants to get Malik's parents on board with keeping their kids apart, as he's still not jazzed about Malik raising a kid already – and what that says about his decision-making with women in the past. Beth, on the other hand, wants Randall to do his best impression of her shoes and keep an open mind like her open toes ... but after a few too many passive aggressive (and then just plain aggressive) verbal jabs from Malik's mom, who's equally not in love with Deja's past baggage, Beth's on Team Blow This Young Love Up – a classic "This Is Us" zag when you expect a zig.
Much like the Mr. Lawrence dinner, however, "This Is Us" gives Malik's parents' perspective proper time as well – and they have plenty of reason to feel suspicious and wary of Randall and Beth too. The Pearsons are being super judgmental about Malik and his child, and the side eye doesn't stop there. Randall and Darnell have an awkward interaction when Darnell points out that he never thought he'd set foot inside one of these fancy houses, putting their class differences in the crosshairs, and later on, Randall spends just a bit too much time staring at Darnell's tattoos – at last certainly long enough that Malik's dad notices. Plus it's not like the adorably innocent but still accidentally venomous commentary from young Annie is helping matters.
And this is all before we talk about politics at the dinner table! WEE! My face is locked into a perma-cringe, and I just got frostbite from all the shade!
The awkwardness is delicious tension on its own, but there's fascinating and complex layers to their strained relationship – that, just like Jack in the past, everyone is defensive of their child and their role as parent to cultures and experiences they don't know – that make it more than just an exercise in lethal amounts of discomfort. And, most important, it comes to a happy ending with Randall and Beth somewhat amending things with Malik's parents (or at least not ending the night in fisticuffs) and allowing Deja and Malik to continue to see each other ... with parent supervision. WELL SURELY THAT WILL BRING AN END TO THE AWKWARDNESS!
3. Malik's Philly
The entire impetus for our disastrous present day dinner (not to mention ruining a delivery of tamales that Randall was VERY excited about) comes from Malik and Deja skipping school together – not just to chill at home or at the movies, but to give Deja a glimpse of Malik's experience in Philadelphia.
Up to this point, Deja admits that she's only seen the tourist's side of the city, so Malik takes her to some of his favorite parts of the his Philly: Max's Steaks for a true cheesesteak – the same spot where Adonis and Bianca visited and fell in love in "Creed," so it's got a good romantic resume as well as culinary cred – sightseeing some gorgeous and gigantic murals, some soft serve at Rita's and walking through this beautiful life-sized mosaic of photos, art and color (a real place, not a fictional creation, fittingly named the Magic Gardens).
Their sightseeing tour isn't just a great romantic backdrop for this young brewing love (though it is). In an episode dedicated to different worlds and racial experiences clashing, it's a fitting tribute to the sides of a city – whether it's Philadelphia or any American metropolis – often neglected or viewed as lesser but that host their own uniquely beautiful features, quirks, landmarks and traditions. Plus, take it from a city that's been cast as Chicago (thanks, "Transformers 3!") or portrayed as a dirt road to Chicago (you too, "Bridesmaids"!): It's always refreshing when a TV show or movie actually does some homework on its leading location and tries to go beyond the stereotypes and cliches.
4. A perfectly predictable ending
The moment Deja brought up her near-forgotten childhood memory of seeing a bunch of "Christmas" lights shining in the water on a warm night, you knew that was going to be the final stop on Malik's tour through his Philly. But that didn't make her return visit to the neighborhood – and Malik's last-ditch attempt to show that he's not just playing a careless game but that he truly cares and listens to Deja, who's too smart and has too many plans to be sidetracked by an irresponsible guy just wanting to hookup – any less adorable and precious. I'm really hoping these young lovebirds make it, because as of Tuesday night's episode, they seem pretty outstandingly sweet together – even if their parents are anything but to one another.
5. Beth's secret stash
But seriously, the most important thing we learned on Tuesday night? Where Beth keeps her emergency wine – when you need a life timeout and that ain't Gatorade helping you refuel and rehydrate. When it's very clear things aren't going to go well at dinner, Beth retreats to their walk-in pantry to get some reinforcements – aka a hearty swig from a hidden bottle of vino. As if we couldn't love Beth more. I would be fine with Emergency Wine (or would that be Emerlotgency Wine) becoming a regular supporting character on the show.
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