5 takeaways from a return trip to the neighborhood pool on "This Is Us"
For its second episode of the new season, "This Is Us" brought out the waterworks – don't worry, not tears but a trip to the neighborhood pool in a kind of spiritual sequel to season one's summer splashdown. And unlike in the season premiere, the Pearsons are here this time!
So what did we all learn from Tuesday night's hour? (Well, besides don't challenge Randall to a read-a-thon because YOU WILL LOSE.) Let's talk about the five big takeaways from "The Pool: Part Two."
1. Ah, so THIS is the premiere
Last week's season premiere threw a curveball at "This Is Us" fans, leaving the Pearsons off-screen for about 98 percent of the episode while introducing completely new characters that had me wondering if we were watching a stealth pilot for a spin-off show called "We Are Also Us." But Tuesday's episode went back to normal, delivering an episode much closer to a standard premiere than the actual one – including even a "here's where everyone's at" recap courtesy of Kevin chatting at an AA meeting.
But just because "This Is Us" returned to familiar, comfortable territory didn't mean it was a bad episode. Instead, it was a nice reminder of what the NBC hit does so well: interweaving the past and present to inform characters and hit on beautiful and complicated truths, while also bringing together some of the most charming performers on television and letting them just charisma all over the place.
2. Parenting is hard, man – even with a pool
Parenting took center stage Tuesday night for the Pearsons' return to the spotlight on "This Is Us," as all of the clan is dealing with how to help the people they care about – whether it's a child, a significant other or a troubled family member.
Kevin's wondering how to step in and show support for Nicky, who last he checked needed bail money wired to him after chucking a chair through a window, as well as his new blind nephew while also keeping his own sobriety, mental health and career in check. Randall and Beth have growing daughters, all going in new directions. Kate's adapting to life as the mother of a blind child – so seemingly well and sturdy that Toby's concerned that she's not letting herself vent or feel any complicated emotions, instead returning to eating those thoughts away. She has a brief breakdown moment near the end of the episode when, during a home visit with an expert on raising a blind child, she realizes the TV bought in the hopes of sharing videos and shows with her son won't go as she planned. But otherwise, according to Toby, she's letting her appetite take the brunt of her concerns and stresses.
And all the while, Becca's watching, quietly but supportively taking in all of the swirling changes in her children's life – partly due to lessons she learned back from a pool visit decades ago.
Jack and Becca, sad to see their kids heading off to school, plan a Pearson Family Fun Day to the swimming hole – much to the kids' apathy. (Doing what "This Is Us" does best, the show nicely cuts to the Big Three's gleeful past reactions, showing how times and kids change as well as the melancholy pain of a parent realizing their kids are growing up.)
There, each of the kids gets into their own brand of trouble. Randall and Kevin get into a fight as the latter shames his brother about not knowing rap lyrics and not being black enough in front of Randall's black friends, so Randall ruins his tape cassette. Meanwhile Kate goes to hang with some untrustworthy teenaged side-ponytails that ends as expected – but also a bit sweeter as a predictable prank turns into a kind and cute kiss with a fellow teased loner. And so the Pearson Family Fun Day ends up not that much fun at all, as all of the kids sit with their decisions, not happy and a bit bruised but maybe a bit wiser moving forward. That includes Jack and Becca too, learning when to step in now in their growing children's lives and when to let them learn even the hard lessons.
In the end, it's a lovely portrait of parenthood – told the way only "This Is Us" can, using its multiple timelines to show the lessons we learn in the past impacting the way we behave in the present and how those memories and feelings ripple forward into the future, in ourselves and in those who fill our lives. As for more evidence: We get another thoughtful moment of Kevin and Jack's complex relationship, with Jack's advice in the past about surrounding yourself with people you love and helping them echoing in the present as Kevin realizes he's still following that tip now, still trying to be the good man his dad would be proud of, practically clinging to Nicky and Kate to distract from his own personal struggles.
Last week may have been the premiere, but tonight's episode was the show's real return.
3. What's the skinny with Toby?
Tonight's episode featured a big death: Toby's fat suit. Indeed, actor Chris Sullivan no longer has to wear the extra padding – nor answer questions about the mildly controversial costuming choice – as in between seasons, Toby is now fit to a level that everybody in the family is gobsmacked about.
But just because he's fit doesn't mean that he's healthy or feeling good. (Of course not, this is "This Is Us"; obviously there's gotta be a problem.) The episode quickly shows Toby working out in a gym, slapping some thick ropes around (shows how much I know about exercise) but there seems to be more to the story than just Toby getting really into crossfit. Maybe it truly is just the new parental stress and Toby trying to distract himself from the weight of it all – of his new blind child, of Kate's fall back into overeating – by burning off some calories. His weirdly evasive behavior whenever anyone asks about his new svelte figure, however, hints at maybe something else lingering under the surface.
More on that certainly to come – but props to the character for losing the pounds, props to the writers for working Sullivan's actual figure naturally into the storyline and props to the show for finally ditching one of its quietly cringe-ier elements.
4. Welcome back, R&B
I missed this. After a season of marital stress thanks to the debatably contrived political campaign storyline last season, then a season premiere in which they took up all of four seconds, Randall and Beth are back to being cute, quippy and, in general, the parents we wish we had in real life. (No offense, mom and dad.)
As with the rest of the episode, the two are coping with their kids growing up and their changing roles as their parents, still their protectors but having to give them the leash to choose their own lives and deal with the real world without them lording over their decisions.
In Deja's case, it's letting her ride the bus to school – which she wants not only for a sense of freedom but also as an odd comforting reminder from her past. (It doesn't hurt that Malik's auto shop is on the route.) And while Randall at first bans it, even stepping in when one passenger gets a little chattier than he'd prefer, he eventually gives in realizing she's growing up. Then there's Tess, who wants a new haircut – seemingly a simple request, but one that reminds Beth that her daughter's becoming her own person and making her own choices as well. Lastly, there's Annie who ... well, she's adorably fine and dandy, so all's the same for at least one of the three.
But otherwise, it's another nice storyline about growing pains – for kids becoming adults but also for their parents coming to terms with their new roles and their new realities. And also the power of the Worst Case Scenario game, which now has three new players after Randall and Beth taught the girls their personal stress reliever.
5. Wait, was that M. Night Shyamalan?
Somehow, even though we were all fully warned ahead of time, I was wholly unprepared for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan to show up on "This Is Us." He plays, well, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, suffering through Kevin's "I see dead people" jokes and navigating his star actor through his latest film, which appears to be about an action hero detective who ... stands by cars and thinks about stuff? Eh, still better than "The Happening."
He also dropped a scathing truth bomb on Kevin, noting that when he's not trying to be charming or relatable or just generally putting on the facade of who he thinks he's supposed to be, he's actually a pretty good actor. And then it turned out KEVIN WAS ALLERGIC TO WATER THIS ENTIRE TIME; WHAT A TWIST!
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