Friday, September 23rd, 2016
It should probably be said in advance of this recap journey that even before I approached Christie with this idea, I watched too much tv. I still watch too much tv and while I am completely thrilled and also mildly terrified that Christie was so enthusiastic about letting me become a regular contributor to her site, watching tv because “I have to” in order to write these recaps is not a very good way to cut back. That would be the mature adult thing to do – cut back on the number of tv series that I take in regularly – but there is something about the late summer previews season for fall pilots that always drags me back.
Okay, so I pursued this year’s pilots at a light almost-jog.
This Is Us was, among the five or six pilots I will probably pick up this year, the show I was most excited about. If not for the return of Milo Ventimiglia (aka my beloved Jess Mariano and that dude from Heroes) to the small screen, it is the only pilot this year that doesn’t have, for lack of a better term, a distinct plot. Now, the twist revealed at the end of the episode will probably beg to differ, which we will discuss at length later. By lack of distinct plot I mean that there is no “boy becomes teen werewolf” or “heroin addicted Brit convinces sober companion to become detective” or “x and y travel back in time to do z” (seriously, how many time travel shows are starting this year?). This is Us, sans twist or even with it, is ultimately a show about quite regular people just going through their lives as best they can; it is refreshing in its normalcy and its examination and celebration of the every man (or woman). It takes me back to NBC’s great success with Parenthood, and if the tears I had to push back while watching this pilot is any indication, I will love this series just as much for how much I laughed, cried, and ached with each of its characters in a mere 40 minutes.
And now that I have rambled too much, let’s get into it.
The pilot opens with white text on a black screen and a lovely Surfjan Stevens song, explaining facts on having the same birthday according to Wikipedia. Most of the text then disappears, leaving us with the three words in the show’s title and a very smooth transition into the opening montage. While Netflix seems very determined to bring back obscenely long title sequences, I have always favoured the five second fade in and out of shows like The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, because that’s an extra minute of actual episode that I’d definitely rather be watching. There’s no way to know if This is Us will keep this title sequence, but I don’t find it unbearable or too gimicky.
Over the continuing warm guitar of “Death with Dignity” we meet our four main protagonists. I will spare you my mild agony of not knowing everyone’s name until the last ten minutes of the episode (though in the end I had many thoughts on that) by breaking down their stories one at a time. As we move through the episode we eventually learn that the premise of this show, of four normal 36 year-olds leading very different lives turns out to be both true, and somehow false, but in the most interesting and surprising way possible.
We begin the episode with the scene that, in full disclosure, initially drew my attention to this series so many months ago: after panning over unpacked boxes, we meet Milo Ventimiglia as Jack, in his birthday suit as his very reluctant and very pregnant wife Rebecca (played by the lovely Mandy Moore) presents him with a cupcake, a candle, and the traditional birthday “seductive dance”. I feel Rebecca’s discomfort as she sways her triplet heavy belly over to the bed, but even Jack’s adorable persistence on her beauty and ability to arouse is abruptly halted when Rebecca’s water breaks.
It’s baby time!
After someone probably told them “The doctor will be with you shortly” and the obligatory agonizing wait at the hospital, Rebecca and Jack are greeted by probably the warmest, most grandfatherly looking deliverer of babies that I have ever seen. Which would be all well and good, if Dr. Katowski (or the folksier ‘Doc’ or ‘Dr. K’) were actually their doctor, but Rebecca’s regular physician has ruptured his appendix and Doc is here to save the day. The soon-to-be parents are understandably concerned; he is a stranger and the babies are six weeks premature, but Doc is as kind and reassuring as I thought he’d be, somehow using “screams of agony” and “up to speed” in the same sentence. He swears on his children and grandchildren that everything will be alright, and as I wipe the sudden tears from my eyes I find myself believing him.
In the delivery room, I am a little surprised to hear Jack adamantly refuse to discuss possible complications to the high risk pregnancy and delivery. He shuts down any possibility of losing any of the children or his wife; a dark part of my brain wonders how or if this would all be different if he’d been willing to have that conversation with the doctor. I found myself wishing that Rebecca would jump in and insist, or have the conversation without Jack present, because as much as I am all for extreme optimism, as a child of a high risk labour I wanted Rebecca to have a voice. They are equally her children, after all. Doc concedes to Jack’s insistence that all will be fine, even though I know, as anyone who has seen trailers for this show probably knows, that it will not be fine. At least, not at first.
Kevin’s (played by Justin Hartley) dejected announcement of his 36th birthday while half naked in a bed to two women clearly more interested in celebrating than moping was hilarious. These girls seem to believe they can pull the famous “Manny” actor out of his funk, but in the fade, they are sitting through Kevin’s somewhat morbid retelling of The Challenger launch disaster and his theory that his life has been in a downward spiral ever since. I am a little inclined to agree when after arriving to his sister Kate’s aid, we see Kevin at work on set, and his character openly wonders in front of a live studio audience if he, as a male nanny, can breastfeed a fussy baby.
He hates it. I hate it. We are both thrilled when in a scene with guest Alan Thicke, Kevin gets to work with some truly strong writing and really show his chops as an actor. But the writer doesn’t want serious, he wants shirtless. Then in a scene that is a little more sad than silly, Kevin quits in an impassioned rage, shouting at the studio audience that they accept and settle for the terrible false nature of the show, demanding so little of the network, the writers, and the actors. Normally freak outs like this alarm my anxious and empathic nature, because in true 2016 fashion, everyone is recording Kevin even as he insults them and it’s all bound to hit the internet. But there is, in my opinion, something so painfully true about what Kevin is saying.
He accuses us as a society of being so complacent that we can’t even be bothered to ask for better from our entertainment. To a certain degree, I think he’s right. We will never get or be better unless we ask for and work to be so. We should expect more from an industry meant to reflect the truth of our lives, even in fiction. Inclusion of all gender, race, orientations, and life experiences should be the norm, not a topic of heavy debate when awards season rolls around. Crashing Kate’s date later in the episode, Kevin drunkenly calls his quitting “artistic integrity.” It’s a funny line, but it’s so true and I am so thrilled for him even as he panics about his next move. I’m curious as to whether or not he’ll maintain that kind of integrity throughout the series, but right now we are off to a great start.
Between Rebecca’s sexy dance and Jack’s very small towel, a refrigerator door is opened to a ‘36 is just another number’ birthday cake and a myriad of post-it notes on the food and drink. Calories are counted per spoonful, while others are just labeled ‘Bad’, and even more harsh: ‘Throw this crap out’. As a quick sidebar, I am obsessed with how beautiful Kate’s (played by Chrissy Metz) handwriting is. Either the actor or the props director has to teach me their ways, please. Kate pulls at a post-it from herself on her birthday cake warning her not to eat it, only to find ‘Seriously? What is your problem?’ just underneath. I laughed, but this is not a reality that I recognise.
Kate’s struggles with her weight and body image are a focal point of her character, as evidenced when she carefully pulls off even her earrings before stepping onto the scale. While I can’t say that I’ve experienced the same kind of self-image issues that Kate has, I know that her story is a mirror reflection of millions of people’s own struggles and I really appreciated that even in its introduction, it was not made the butt of a joke. There is no slight in the camera angles or the staging of Metz’s character; she is just as real and true as Jack, Kevin, or Randall.
Back on the scale, Kate slips and has to call her twin brother Kevin to help her out. It’s probably in poor taste to bring your weight conscious sister a tub of ice cream for her ankle, but when there is no ice, ice cream will have to do. Kate realizes what her brother already has: they are both now 36 years old and their lives aren’t at all they way they’d imagined. I get choked up when Kate utters the line “like I ate my dream life away” through her own tears. It could very well be a punchline, but I am so warmed by the fact that it is the complete opposite. Their sibling comraderie is found easily as Kate effortlessly shoots down Kevin’s Challenger theory, but the most important part of their bathroom floor pow wow is when Kate implores her brother to empower her to get her life together and lose weight. I remember frowning at the tv, thinking that surely this won’t work; Kate must empower herself if she’s to be successful, right? Kevin dutifully repeats ‘Quit feeling sorry for youself,’ and ‘Wake the hell up’, but pretends to forget the weight encouragement and forces Kate to repeat it to herself instead.
Well played, writers.
Later in the episode Kate dumps all her junk food and attends a support group largely composed of overweight members, where she has a lovely meet cute with a man named Toby (Chris Sullivan). They eventually go on a date despite Kate’s intent to “not fall for a fat person”. As much I like Toby, he was oddly pushy with things like looking at the dessert menu despite Kate’s refusal or inviting himself into Kate’s home and sounding as though he was entitled to such a thing. Their evening is eventually interrupted by Kevin in crisis, and I found myself more engaged with the strength of their sibling relationship rather than Kate’s burgeoning romantic one. I believe it was intentional, and the reason becomes clear later.
There is what comes off as an intended comedic moment during the support group scene when a lone tiny woman in the group describes struggling with an odd seven pounds in her midsection. It’s sort of funny in its ridiculousness, but more than that it is a stark reminder to viewers like myself. While I empathize with Kate’s story and I feel and root for her character, I do not truly understand what she is going through. I cannot judge any decisions she makes regarding her weight and body image journey, because I myself have not gone through it; it is something I’ll strive to remember week to week, and I hope that viewers will too.
Our final birthday celebration is for Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), who from the look of his fancy office and extremely thoughtful co-workers seems to be as successful a business person as one could be. It’s still a unclear by the end of the episode what Randall’s job actually is, but the point is that he’s a very wealthy and happy man with a beautiful family and life.
Randall bypasses his many well-wishing birthday emails to one that simply reads ‘FOUND HIM’. He clicks through to a photo of William Hull (Ron Cephas Jones), who we learn later is his estranged father. Randall discusses William with his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) at their daughters’ conveniently timed dual soccer games; we learn that Randall is a safe haven baby, left at a fire station by his father while his mother had died in childbirth and they’d both been addicted to drugs. I love the strength of Beth and Randall’s partnership as well as the stark juxtaposition between children Annie and Tess; one french braids on the field while the other makes the boys on the other team cry (I definitely more of an Annie and I’m thrilled to share a name with her). I also immediately love Randall and Beth as parents who so nonchalantly accept their kids’ extreme differences and make no move to change them, only encourage.
Beth accepts Randall’s decision not to meet his father face to face, despite the time and money he put into finding him, but in the next scene Randall finds himself clearing his afternoon to meet his father anyway. He’d prepared a speech for William upon the door opening, describing his life and loving family and great success despite the start he’d had in life. Maybe he wants William to feel badly and just leave it at that, but a somewhat bemused looking William invites his son in and Randall looks a little surprised to hear himself accept.
In the following scenes as William describes getting clean but remembering little of the night Randall was born and Randall describes his parents meeting him at the hospital in what felt like fate, I’m struck by the imbalanced dynamic between them. Randall by all accounts should be the victor here, if such a thing exists in this kind of scenario. But it is his father William who is calm, collected, and not looking to apologize or make amends. Randall grasps for something like closure; he thinks he’ll get it by getting angry and storming out, but he might get it instead by inviting William to meet his family. Beth, like the champion partner she already is, takes it mostly in stride and I’m excited to see where this goes for them as a family.
AND THEN IT STARTS.
After delivering a baby boy, Rebecca experiences complications. Jack is forced to wait for news, which ends up being both beautiful and tragic: he has a boy and a girl and Rebecca is fine, but their third child, another boy, was stillborn. In a moment of tv self-awareness that I loved, Doc announced his intention to say something meaningful before doing just that. We learn he’s experienced exactly what Jack has, and gives him a beautiful talk on lemons and lemonade before encouraging him to meet his children.
This scene is intercut with Kate and Kevin’s second (though now mostly drunken) sibling powwow of the episode; Kate reminds her brother of something their dad used to say, about life and lemons. My heart is clenching thinking that Doc is their father, but the truth is even better than that, when William looks at a “Manny” poster in Annie and Tess’s room that reads ‘To my favourite nieces’. Jack speaks to a fireman who’s just dropped off a baby left at his station, who then offers Jack a cigarette, and I am shrieking to myself as the camera pans out to Kevin, Kate, and Randall all in a row as bawling newborns.
Jack and Rebecca are their parents. Their entire story takes place in 1980, and we’ve been watching Jack and his adult children in 2016 live through the beginning of the same year in all of their lives.
I was so blown away that I literally just sat there staring at my screen for a full minute.
There is an obvious hint at the very beginning of the episode, when the camera focuses on ‘Family Photos ‘77-79’ scrawled on a cardboard box, but the millenial that is me probably assumed they were old photos. I remember my disappointment too, that when William picks up a photo of Randall with his parents that we don’t get to see them.
BUT IT WAS ALL PART OF THE PLAN.
If I wasn’t excited about this series before, I am barely holding it together now. This is one of the most interesting and creative premises I have ever seen, and I cannot wait for this journey to unfold. If you are actually at the bottom of this literal five page recap and review, thank you. Your concentration and stamina are truly impressive. Thoughts on the pilot? Whose story are you most excited about? Are you my mom following this Facebook link? Let me know!