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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A fiery car crash is the least interesting thing about tonight’s This Is Us

Illustration for article titled A fiery car crash is the least interesting thing about tonight’s This Is Us
Photo: NBC
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This Is Us loves a fake out car crash. It ended its first season with one for Jack, and pulled the same trick with Kevin and Tess halfway through season two. So given how blatantly this episode’s opening shot (and its promo) suggested Kevin would find himself in a fiery crash, I should’ve known to be suspicious. But, I’ll admit, the show got me. I didn’t expect that Kevin’s rush to be at the birth of his twins would feature him stopping to rescue someone else from a car crash. Especially when that person turns out to be surprise guest star Joshua Malina!

After an unintentional four-week hiatus brought on by the surge of Covid cases in L.A., This Is Us returns with an episode that encapsulates the best and worst of what the show can do. At first “There” seems to succumb to the classic This Is Us problem in which the flashback storyline soars while the present day stuff flounders. But by the end, its strengths and flaws emerge as something more complex.

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Plotwise, “There” is a relatively simple episode, with Kevin’s journey to reach Madison contrasted with Jack and young Kevin’s trip to football camp. The present day stuff is pretty rote, with the car crash adding some artificial (and ultimately pointless) stakes to Kevin’s journey from his Vancouver set to the Seattle airport. Everything Kevin does in this episode is motivated by his desire to be like his father—from walking off set right before a big scene with Robert De Niro to stopping to help the aforementioned crash victim. But the flashback storyline serves as a reminder that Jack wasn’t just the simplistic hero his kids remember him as.

“There” circles back to the thread I picked up on in “Honestly,” the episode where Jack pushes Kevin to recommit to football because he’s worried about his son becoming “soft.” In that episode, it was a little unclear whether or not we were supposed to be onboard with Jack’s tough-love parenting style. But “There” confirms that Jack overstepped in his enthusiasm. For as much as he actively works to parent differently than his own abusive father, old cycles sometimes still repeat themselves. Jack winds up pressuring Kevin with football the way his own father pressured him with Little League—creating an environment where it feels like succeeding at sports is the only way to earn a father’s love and approval.

Illustration for article titled A fiery car crash is the least interesting thing about tonight’s This Is Us
Photo: NBC

The difference, of course, is that Jack is able to recognize his misstep and course correct, which is something his own self-centered father was never able to do. In fact, Jack delivers something of a masterclass in how parents can listen to their kids and admit their mistakes without losing their sense of authority. The Big Three’s 8th grade year gives This Is Us a really interesting chance to explore the time when parent/child relationships begin to shift. When parents start to see their kids as their own independent people, and kids get the thrill of finally starting to do grown-up stuff.

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Jack realizes that his biggest mistake was tying his new, more mature relationship with his son solely to football and weight lifting. As young Kevin heartbreakingly proclaims, “We never do anything alone together, but you took the time to bring me here because you think that football’s my only shot at being special.” So Jack sets about trying to forge a new connection instead. Before diving into their emotionally vulnerable conversation, he invites Kevin to join him for a steak dinner at a restaurant bar. It’s a thrilling trip into grown-up masculinity for young Kevin. And the subtext of what Jack is trying to teach his son is clear: Real men talk about their feelings and own up to their mistakes.

It’s not a lesson Jack himself always follows and it’s not one Kevin entirely learns either. But the effort is nevertheless incredibly moving to watch. As a kid, young Jack’s moment of grown-up bonding time with his dad came when a drunken Stanley forced him to drive them home from one of his Little League games—a terrifying experience that was also, in its own weird way, one of Jack’s sweetest memories of his father. As an adult, Jack tries to replicate that sense of connection without the trauma he experienced alongside it.

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Illustration for article titled A fiery car crash is the least interesting thing about tonight’s This Is Us
Photo: NBC

As is so often the case on This Is Us, the flashback stuff is so much better than the present-day storyline that it’s almost hard to believe they were written and directed by the same people. And it’s not just a matter of Milo Ventimiglia being one of the strongest actors on the series. So much of what makes the flashback work is in its subtle visual storytelling. The way the bottles of alcohol lining the back of the bar serve as a visual reminder of the deep demons that Jack isn’t willing to open up about. The way Kevin notices his dad take his straw out of his glass of coke and later copies him. The quiet menace to Jack’s demand that Kevin’s football coach stop calling his son stupid.

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Freed from the pressure to tell an ongoing narrative, This Is Us is in so much more control of what it’s trying to say in its flashback storylines. In contrast, present-day Kevin’s frustrated phone calls just aren’t that compelling or revealing. And the one conversation that would be interesting to watch—Rebecca opening up to Kevin about Jack’s flaws—winds up getting cut off for the sake of phone signal drama. And yet, just as I was ready to write off the present day stuff as needless filler, the episode ends with an absolutely lovely grace note: In Madison’s time of need, it’s Randall and Beth who reach out to let her know that they’re there for her. Even if all she needs is someone to talk to. After all, they’re family.

It’s a wonderfully unexpected path towards Randall and Kevin’s inevitable reconciliation, and a moving encapsulation of how Jack’s parenting ethos shaped his family. In modeling the importance of being “there” for the people you love, Jack raised kids who are loyal not only to their own nuclear families but to the broader Pearson collective too. Though Kevin feels like he has to step up to the plate and do it all, Jack (and Rebecca!) created a strong enough family unit that he doesn’t have to. Unlike the dramatics of the fake-out car crash, Randall and Beth’s phone call is a “twist” that’s all the more effective for how simple it is.

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Illustration for article titled A fiery car crash is the least interesting thing about tonight’s This Is Us
Photo: NBC

Though it wasn’t clear at first, these past three episodes have formed a Big Three trilogy that started with Kate’s abortion experience in “A Long Road Home,” told the story of Randall’s birth mom in “Birth Mother,” and now explores Kevin’s relationship to Jack on the verge of his own impending fatherhood. It’s one of the more uneven Big Three trilogies This Is Us has delivered—one without the thematic or structural cohesion that past seasons have offered. But “There” at least makes for a relatively effective capstone. While Kate and Randall’s episodes felt overstuffed and rushed, Kevin’s has room to breath.

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It’s a lesson this season will hopefully channel moving forward. These past few episodes have frequently felt like they’re playing on fast forward. (I can’t believe how casually this episode reveals that Ellie is being induced, and Kate and Toby are off to meet their new daughter.) Like Jack, This Is Us needs to remember that it’s important to slow down and reflect, not just keep pushing forward.


Stray observations

  • I loved the reveal that Miguel is the one booking Kevin’s flight. Truly hilarious.
  • It’s disappointing that this season has pretty much entirely dropped the Kate/Madison friendship in favor of turning her into just Kevin’s fiancée. Having Ellie be in labor at the same time is a pretty cheap “get out of jail free card” for not having Kate involved in Madison’s own delivery.
  • Did we already know that Robert De Niro was in Kevin’s movie? That came as a surprise to me.
  • It’s weird that this season hasn’t mentioned Uncle Nicky at all. Does he even know Kevin is having kids?
  • This Is Us can be inconsistent when it comes to selling Kevin and Kate’s magical twin connection, but their Edible Arrangements phone call was very funny and sweet. Also, of course they’re going to wind up having kids born on the same day. How did I not see that coming?
  • Imagine having a celebrity save your life and the first thing they do is tell you their deep-seated emotional insecurities while driving you to the hospital.
  • “Thank you, my son.”
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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