'This Is Us' was a teary Halloween treat

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

This week’s This Is Us had a Halloween theme — full-size bars only, insisted control-freaking, approval-seeking Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — and was one of the better episodes of its uneven new season. The trick-or-treat scenes involving Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) kids, focused primarily on the young, excessively fussy Randall (loved the Michael Jackson costume worn by young actor Lonnie Chavis), were closely observed and in keeping with the series’ best examinations of how adults learn to parent as they go along, hit or miss, with love in their hearts. (Hearts that beat beneath costumes that saw Jack and Rebecca spending Halloween as Sonny and Cher. As usual on TV, characters walk around in costumes that look way too tailored and expensive to have been thrown together the way you or I would do it.)

The episode introduced us to a new timeline, circa 2008 — note the Obama-Biden campaign buttons being born by Kate and others. Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) are about to have their first child, Kate (Chrissy Metz) is a waitress, and Kevin (Justin Hartley) is really struggling as an actor. Indeed, he’s highly jealous when his struggling-actor roommate bursts into the ratty apartment they’re sharing to say that he’s won a role in “the new Christian Bale movie!” (That reference was, until 48 hours ago, “the new Kevin Spacey movie!” In a weird coincidence, the scene had been filmed, edited, and released to critics for advance reviews when Spacey’s unfortunate scandal hit. Bale’s name was dubbed over the Spacey reference, which leads me to ask: Would you, as a viewer, have been so terribly offended if a 2008 character mentioned Spacey’s name? Is this a case of producers and NBC being a little too sensitive about a current event?)

Anyhow… Why did I call this season uneven up at the top? For me, there’s been a feeling of repetition in the way This Is Us keeps reillustrating its characters’ key personalities or tics (Toby is a jolly cutup! Randall is such an earnest goofball!). Also, some of the new plots aren’t working for me. I really don’t want to see Kevin go through painkiller addiction and rehab. And I have to say, I dreaded the Randall-and-Beth-foster-a-kid subplot from the moment it surfaced. I can’t imagine what the producers were thinking: In a show that already has many characters, why introduce another one when the writers could give established ones more to do? Specifically: If I was the young actor who plays Randall’s eldest child, Tess, I’d be pretty irritated, because that new foster child is taking up whole scenes that could have been devoted to more fully establishing Tess’s personality.

This week’s episode — directed by Regina King, written by Don Roos (Single White Female) — did, in a number of scenes, what This Is Us does best: elicit emotion in its audience by showing emotion from its characters. If you didn’t get a little tremble-lipped as Randall explained his nervousness at being a dad to the guy working in the big-box hardware store where he’d gone to get a ceiling fan for the baby’s nursery, well, you’re a stronger person than I am. (I like the way salespeople on television will stand calmly and listen to a customer tell us a whole lotta backstory, instead of what a salesperson would do in real life: “Excuse me, sir, I have to go help this customer” — zoom!) Once again, Sterling K. Brown earned that Emmy of his.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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