Television

'This Is Us': "The Big Three" Digs Deeper Into Story and Character

Jay Bamber
William (Ron Cephas Jones) tries to connect with his biological son.

Post-pilot, the second episode offers deeper characterization, a big twist, and a lot more questions.


This Is Us

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9PM
Cast: Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 2 – "The Big Three"
Network: NBC
Air date: 2016-09-27
Amazon

Whilst the first episode of This Is Us was an exercise in making exposition entertaining, and a thoroughly satisfying vehicle for a twist, episode two is about setting up who the Pearsons are and how the past reverberates through, and in some ways dictates, the present and the future. By presenting this story in two different timelines, so effectively breaking the narrative into two distinct but connected stories, the show does an excellent job of demonstrating one of the most fascinating themes in all of storytelling: cause and effect.

The passing of time is an inherently moving and meaningful thing to represent; things change, people change, the world changes; change is the driving force for all dramatic television. This Is Us does a smart thing by focusing each episode on a particular theme, a theme that has resonance in the past and the present, because it provides every installment with a unique emotional thesis statement.

The theme of "The Big Three" is breaking personal boundaries and imagining a new life for oneself. It starts around ten years after the pilot ended; Kevin (Justin Hartley), Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and Kate (Chrissy Metz) are pre-teens, and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) are in the swing of parenthood. This Is Us does a good job of establishing time; the audience knows that they’re in the mid-'80s because of smart costuming choices, a specific color palette, and strong musical choices (the opening of this episode uses Dire Straits's "Romeo and Juliet" to moving effect). Whilst Randall (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Parker Bates) get to eat sugary cereals, Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicak) is served a watermelon for her breakfast, quickly establishing that her struggles with eating have been life-long.

This Is Us also shines at showing how small actions can go on to have enormous ramifications; it's nuanced in its examination of how those small actions are often done with the best of intentions. A lesser show would've made Kate's struggles a huge plot point, or presented one side as right, but in its search for authenticity, Dan Fogelman's script demonstrates Rebecca's fears over Kate being bullied and picked on. Rebecca’s parental decisions regarding Kate's weight end up being damaging, but they come from a place of fear: that her daughter will have to experience all of the pains and disadvantages that the world inflicts on people who don't meet a strict physical ideal. Jack allows Kate to eat the cereal with her brothers, establishing him as the "fun" parent, and leaves for work with the family's battle-cry of "big three".

Back in the present time, Kate and Toby's (Chris Sullivan) relationship deepens as they attempt to work out together at the gym. This is cut short by Toby's very vocal and funny disdain for exercising, which he demonstrates by yelling at the gym-goers and whisking Kate away. Sullivan is allowed the most space to inject comedy into the proceedings and he runs with the opportunity; his chemistry with Metz's Kate is funny and fizzy without feeling superficial in comparison to the other dynamics in the show.

When Kate is invited to one of Kevin's Hollywood parties, her initial reaction is to say no, but Toby implores her to have a night when being overweight isn't the defining feature of her life. Kate dresses up and dances amongst the Hollywood elite, but her weight makes her feel uncomfortable. Every actor on this show gets their individual moment to shine, but Metz is handed a spectacular and complex monologue about how being fat has been her story since she was a child and every decision she makes is, at least partly, about her weight. The acting is fantastic; Metz occupies a place where she's vulnerable, but not a victim. It feels like a real and well-calibrated examination of somebody who's had to acknowledge their negative relationship with food. This Is Us seems to be leading towards a confrontation between Kate and her mother Rebecca, between the mistakes of the past and their consequences in the present, which is a development that could reveal more about both characters.

As the pilot relied so heavily on revealing its big twist (that Kevin, Randall, and Kate are siblings) it didn't have the opportunity to establish the dynamics between the characters. One of the most intriguing elements of the episode is the rift between Kevin and Randall, a disconnect that seems to have plagued them since they were young children. In flashbacks, we learn that the children in school taunted Randall, calling him "Webster" after the '80s sitcom about an African-American boy adopted by a white family. Randall isn't only black, but also nerdy and nervous, a trifecta that makes him a prime target for bullies. Kevin, who has all of the calling cards of the typical popular kid, refuses to defend Randall, fearful of damaging his stellar reputation. This lays an interesting groundwork for future episodes: how has Kevin's lack of support affected their adult relationship?

Whilst Kate and Toby are dancing and enjoying themselves, Kevin interrupts the party and tells his agent and the head of the television network that he'll be quitting his role on The Manny. At first, this seems to go down as well as could be expected, until Kevin is told that he is contractually obliged to star in the sitcom for two more seasons. If he decides not to fulfill his contract, his career will be torpedoed, his name blacklisted, and his chances of working in Hollywood destroyed. This news is delivered by the always fantastic Brad Garrett and Katey Sagal -- both of whom know a thing or two about starring in a sitcom -- who manage to raise the emotional stakes of the situation by putting in genuinely menacing performances.

Hartley is equally good playing a character who can be slightly hard to connect with; his dilemma is hardly relatable, but he sells Kevin's fear and frustration. The scene shifts quickly, from amenable conversation to outright confrontation, a change in tone that the script successfully uses to emphasize Kevin's narrowing options. Kevin commits to the idea that he'll leave the show, regardless of the professional consequences, and endeavors to pursue a less high-profile life in the theater. It's hard to gauge how good an actor the show wants us to believe Kevin to be; his chances of succeeding would be easier to ascertain if the show was a little more specific about his talent.

Randall's storyline, meanwhile, focuses on his relationship with William (Ron Cephas Jones), his estranged, cancer-ridden biological father. Randall's scenes parallel Rebecca and Jack's as they situate themselves in the domestic space, which is a sharp contrast to Kevin and Kate. Because of this, Randall is the easiest character to treat as an audience surrogate -- the stakes are higher for him because he has the most to lose -- and cementing at least one protagonist within a family unit is a smart decision because of the way it emphasizes the links between the past and the present.

The audience is allowed to see how different Randall's relationship with Jack was in the '70s to his current one with William; as he has grown older, and become a father himself, he's grown less accustomed to being someone's son. Randall and William struggle to forge a connection, unable to work out who they are to each other or what residual feeling they’re supposed to share. It's telling that Randall doesn't tell his children that William is their grandfather because it reveals the fact that he hasn't accepted him as his father. All of these scenes are delicately written, neither forcing the father-son dynamic nor resisting it, and Brown and Cephas Jones do excellent, sensitive work. Susan Kelechi Watson also deserves a mention as Beth, Randall's wife. Beth's main concern is that Randall may be allowing William to stay at their house out of a sense of obligation to a past that never happened, or because he's simply too nice. A seemingly throwaway piece of dialogue, it actually exposes so much about their marriage and about Randall's tendency to sacrifice his own needs in order to fulfill other people's.

In the '80s flashbacks, we see Rebecca and Jack's relationship being pushed to its limits. Rebecca's struggling to bring up three children who each have their own specific needs and sensitivities and feels more and more isolated from the domestic life that's taken over her old one. Moore is an expressive actress, so much so that she’s sometimes in danger of telegraphing her performances too effusively, although so far she plays Rebecca with heart and maturity. One of the great, if frustrating, aspects of the show is that it delivers its exposition in random order; the story isn't told chronologically, so there are gaps in each character’s narrative.

In subsequent episodes, we'll learn why Rebecca's finding it difficult to acclimate to motherhood, but in "The Big Three", she can feel a little opaque. As Rebecca tries to work out what she wants and who she wants to become, Jack is getting more frustrated by his job. It's quickly and neatly established through an interaction with his best friend Miguel (Jon Huertas) that Jack is becoming more and more dependent on alcohol to bury his feelings of hopelessness. After a particularly heavy night, Jack stumbles home to find Rebecca waiting for him.

In yet another example of how well Ventimiglia and Moore work together, this scene between the two of them is smart and meaningful. Rebecca says that she married somebody who promised her that he'd always do his best, and now he's doing much less than that. Jack doesn't deny the accusation, but also doesn't know how to navigate or change his feelings. Rebecca all but offers up an ultimatum; Jack changes his alcohol habit or he moves out.

In the morning, Rebecca leaves her bedroom and Jack is asleep on the floor like a Labrador waiting to see his owner. This sounds cheesy and maudlin, but somehow Dan Fogleman's script makes it resonate. Ventimiglia does his best work as Jack explains that he didn't know who, or what, he wanted to be until he met Rebecca. It's sweet and serious, with enough authentic emotion to make it land exactly where it is supposed to. There's no doubt that this monologue, and the show in general, is manipulative – it's designed to pull at the heartstrings -- but that doesn't automatically mean that it feels calculated. Something this well crafted should feel robotic; it feels anything but.

The episode ends with a drunken Kevin ringing Randall for the first time in months, perhaps years. Randall doesn't offer any advice, but he listens and begins the family battle-cry that Jack used throughout their childhood. Adult Kevin, Randall, and Kate are connected properly for the first time; they're all shouting into the air, bonding over a memory that they all share. It's moving and complicated; each character knows that they don't know very much and are clinging to each other for something that they don't really know how to ask for.

In a last-minute twist, the action moves to Randall in the present day. The front door rings and his kids run to it, exuberantly greeting their grandparents. The camera pans through the house to show Rebecca and … Miguel. These twists can feel a little bit cheap -- This Is Us really doesn't need them to engage the viewer -- but this particular twist does codify some mysteries into the overarching plot. What happened between Rebecca and Jack? Where is Jack? How did Miguel become Kate, Randall, and Kevin's stepdad? How do they feel about it? "The Big Three" asks more questions than it has any intention of answering, but I'm eager to find out more.

8


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