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Spoiler alert! The following contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 2, of “This Is Us,” “The Pool: Part 2.”
Even with that promising Season 4 premiere, we should have known that “This Is Us” writers couldn’t fully shrug off all the baggage from the first three seasons.
The second episode of the NBC family drama’s fourth season returned its focus to the Pearson family after a roundabout premiere that introduced a handful of new characters. “The Pool: Part 2” functioned more like the season premiere fans expected, taking stock of the family after a tumultuous finale, as Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and the girls adjust to life in Philadelphia; Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) adjust to being parents of a visually impaired baby, while Rebecca (Mandy Moore) tries to help; and Kevin (Justin Hartley) moves on from his breakup with Zoey (Melanie Liburd) and continues his journey through addiction recovery.
Unfortunately, the writers have set themselves up for a losing situation. Compared to last week’s episode, full of new characters who show storytelling promise, returning to the Pearsons was a bit of a letdown. The potential for refreshing the series, which has struggled creatively since its breakout first season, is apparent, but might rest in stories that don’t focus single-mindedly on our favorite family. Hopefully, once the new characters start interacting with the Pearsons, things will start moving in a more promising direction.
Backward baby steps
In Los Angeles, Kate, Toby and Baby Jack have moved into a new house and are ready for their new reality. Most of their scenes center on a visit from a woman trained in raising children who are blind, getting the parents (and for some reason, Rebecca, Miguel, Madison and Kevin) to consider issues like not changing the furniture layout so that Baby Jack can learn it.
Kate has dealt with the news of Baby Jack’s blindness, putting her energy into learning the best ways to care for her son. Yet Toby and the rest of the family are deeply concerned about the one thing the show can’t get over: Her eating. The camera lingers on her taking two (yes, two) bites of food, seemingly demonstrating that she’s on a crazy binge of bad health habits, ready to ruin her life at any moment. Toby goes so far as to tell Rebecca that he thinks Kate is overeating to deal with the stress.
Meanwhile, Toby seems to have begun compulsive exercise as a coping mechanism, which he’s hiding from Kate. His weight loss is obvious ( Sullivan usually wears padding that the costume designers have apparently removed) and everyone is quick to comment on it and praise him, in front of a plus-size Kate.
Can “Us” just let Kate live? A story about Kate and Toby learning to raise a vision-impaired child without pushing their anxieties on him is interesting. A story about Kate overeating because she’s stressed is not. The series has told it before, badly.
It’s frustrating to see the series move backward, and it leaves less time for Baby Jack. Instead, we get Kate offering a cheesy and cliché-ridden speech about how the family will thrive despite his disability. All in all, a disappointing start to a narrative that will likely dominate the series.
A Philadelphia story
In the new Pearson Philly residence – which, despite all this talk about shrinking budgets and living space, looks pretty darn nice – everything is sunny in the marriage and stormy in parenting.
The problems that plagued Randall and Beth’s marriage in Season 3 have all but evaporated, and now the couple has moved on to worrying over their daughters Tess (Eris Baker) and Deja (Lyric Ross), who are entering their teenage years of grousing, getting radical haircuts and mooning over boys and/or girls.
When Tess came out as a lesbian last season, Randall and Beth promised their love and support. But even a couple so progressive and evolved can struggle with their daughter’s sexuality. When Tess goes to the salon for a short haircut right out of a queer fashion guide, Beth is resistant. Even when the (obviously gorgeous) results are displayed, Beth is only able to feign happiness, not feel it.
Deja, meanwhile, is yearning for the independence she had before the Pearsons adopted her. She tries to convince Randall to let her ride the bus to school (so she can spy on her new crush Malik, we eventually learn), but one interaction with a creepy dude sends him rushing over from a nearby seat to save the day.
Eventually, Randall and Beth realize they’re going about this all wrong, and introduce their daughters to their “Worst Case Scenario” game, which helps ease the tension. Beth admits she’s pushing her own anxiety onto Tess, Randall relents about the bus, and Annie (Faithe Herman) actually shows some emotion.
I see dead uncles
Kevin’s storyline solved the brief mystery of “The Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan’s appearance in the Season 4 trailer. Shyamalan has a brief cameo as himself, directing Kevin in a movie and hinting that the actor has more to give to his performances than he allows himself.
While working on the Shyamalan film, Kevin has thrown himself into recovery, regularly attending 12-step meetings and caring for a houseplant as a form of therapy. Working on a set gave him a sense of order and stability, but now that the film has wrapped he’s not sure what to do. Rebecca and Kate push him to take a job on another film in Chicago to avoid interrupting his routine.
But Kevin is worried about Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne), who last week was arrested and accepted bail money from Kevin but then stopped talking to him. It seems like Kevin is heading for a meeting about the new movie in Chicago, but instead he flies to Pennsylvania and shows up at Nicky’s door with his plant. So he has a new project.
The deep end
Returning to the Pearson family’s community pool, the site of the series’ second episode (which established it as a strong family drama), was a bold move that didn’t entirely pay off.
This week’s flashback takes place four years after that episode, which saw Rebecca and Jack take their elementary-school aged kids to the pool. Now, the kids are cranky tweens uninterested in family bonding.
This story mostly rehashes themes from the first pool trip, as Young Kate navigates bullying, Young Randall struggles with his identity as a black boy and Young Kevin struggles with Randall as a brother. Rebecca and Jack are simply overwrought parents who feel like their time with their children is slipping away.
It’s not that this part of the story was bad, it was just dull and added no new understanding about the characters. That’s the danger of an aging show that relies so heavily on flashbacks: Eventually, they stop adding new elements to a story that’s already complex. Hopefully, “Us” can find a way forward without relying on them so heavily.
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