'This Is Us' brings all its subplots to a crisis point

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

On Tuesday night, This Is Us concludes a trilogy of episodes constructed around the three Pearson children, Kevin (Justin Hartley). Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and Kate (Chrissy Metz). This week’s episode, “Number Three,” is a Randall-centric episode, following “Number One” (Kevin-centric) and “Number Two” (Kate-centric). Since each episode has shown us roughly the same events but from different perspectives, you can figure out what this new episode will include. Previously we’ve been shown brief scenes of Randall as a high schooler, heading off on a college tour with his dad, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). That college trip does occupy a solid chunk of the hour. But we also get quite a bit about Randall-in-the-present, continuing to cope with his new foster daughter, Deja (Lyric Ross).

Now, the way I see its season thus far, This Is Us has trumped up three crises its writers never needed to create — storylines that seemed doomed, narratively speaking, from the start. The difficult adjustment of Deja, Kate’s pregnancy, and Kevin’s pain-pill addiction have all disrupted the flow of plots that This Is Us had so carefully put in play in Season 1. Each has slowed the momentum in favor of giving Hartley, Metz, and Brown a few showy, agonized moments that will look good in their Emmy Award submissions. I know that sounds cynical, and I’m not blaming the actors at all. What I’m irritated about is the way we all knew from the moment each of these subplots were introduced that they’d never last more than a few episodes, that these storylines will not significantly alter a series that is only beginning what will probably be a long run.

I mean, do we really think Kevin is going to remain a ready-for-death drug addict for years to come? Did we really think that Kate and Toby (Chris Sullivan) were going to morph from wisecracking cool-couple to earnest first-time parents? I am particularly annoyed by the Deja subplot because the marriage of Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and the way they parent their two daughters, represent my favorite relationships in the show. Granted, my annoyance about Deja’s arrival was selfish — why was this girl allowed to mess with the Randall-and-Beth moments I had been enjoying so much? As good as Ross’s performance is, I even begrudged the amount of screen time Deja was getting versus Randall’s daughters, Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman). Hadn’t those characters and actors earned bigger subplots, rather than being overshadowed by a new kid? As you can see, I’ve been taking this stuff personally, but isn’t that what a heart-tugging show like This Is Us wants us to do?

This trilogy of episodes, all directed by Ken Olin, are artfully done. They overlap neatly and effectively convey the writers’ overarching message that, at any given moment, each member of a family is going through his or her own mess, oblivious to the other person’s mess. I am not going to spoil what happens in “Number Three,” but I will say that, once again, Sterling K. Brown redeems a lot of awfully corny material, including Randall’s Pac-Man-as-a-metaphor-for-life speech that leaves even Beth looking askance at his reach for profundity. This episode is being promoted by NBC as a “fall finale.” It’s my fervent hope that, when the show returns in 2018, Kevin will be miraculously cured of his drug dependency and we can get on with proper This Is Us business. I know it won’t actually work out that way, but the holiday season is a time for hope, isn’t it?

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

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