Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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On paper, “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” is exactly the kind of This Is Us episode I usually find pretty lackluster: It’s mostly set in the present day, with a middle school-set flashback that doesn’t do much more than provide some This Is Us comfort food. And it centers on the kind of interpersonal dynamics that This Is Us often struggles to bring nuance to. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” elevates that familiar structure rather than using it as a crutch. I still have some lingering logistical questions (who’s watching Randall and Beth’s kids when they’re at a dinner in Philly, and can’t they just babysit more often?). But on the whole, this is one of the stronger episodes of the season. And it’s the strongest example of this particular This Is Us format we’ve seen in a long time.

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In addition to a sweetly romantic runner about Jack and Rebecca chaperoning the Big Three’s first middle school dance, “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” centers on three different relationships in three different places of tension. A trip to couples therapy to discuss Kevin’s relapse inspires a conversation about the fact that Zoe doesn’t want to have kids. Toby struggles to bond with Baby Jack with the ease that Kate seems to. And Randall and Beth manage their conflicting schedules with a simmering level of resentment that eventually boils over into the lead-in to the penultimate episode of the season, which is called “R&B.” There’s all that plus the welcome return of Alexandra Breckenridge’s Sophie, which allows This Is Us to finally close the door on a plot thread that never felt full resolved. (Or maybe to reopen that door again? More on that later.)

I’m used to writing This Is Us reviews in which I praise one or two storylines while critiquing the rest, but in this case pretty much every one of tonight’s storylines worked for me. The middle school dance subplot is a little bit simplistic and borders on cloying at the end, with the fantasy sequence of Jack and Rebecca attending a junior high dance together. But that’s a pretty minor complaint; it’s hard to begrudge a storyline that gives us adorable moments like Jack teasing Kevin about his over-gelled hair. And the Jack/Rebecca dynamic offers a positive example of the central thesis of this episode: Relationships are a balancing act between two different people with two different sets of life experiences and values. In this particular case, that’s a good thing. The relative normalcy of Rebecca’s upbringing means she can be a guide for her kids’ first dance experience. It’s something she finds effortless, while Jack—whose childhood was far less conventional—mostly feels like he’s just making it up as he goes along.

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That dynamic is mostly directly echoed in Kate and Toby, who are on their sixth day in the NICU with Baby Jack. As Kate will later admit, she’s of course terrified to see her tiny son (just 2.5 pounds!) in such intense medical care. Yet she takes to nurturing and caretaking with an ease that Toby lacks. It’s an anxiety he works through with another NICU dad, who’s been there for six weeks and shares a sense of frank realism that Toby can relate to more than Kate’s loving optimism. The Kate/Toby storyline ultimately boils down to a relatively familiar arc about how the parent who carries a child can sometimes have an easier time immediately bonding with them than the parent who doesn’t. But it’s a well-executed example of that trope—rooted in the specificity of the NICU experience (the scene of the doctors drawing Jack’s blood was incredibly visceral), and emotional without being melodramatic. Kate and Toby work through their issues with maturity, empathy, and communication. And there’s a wonderful sense of catharsis in the moment Toby gets to hold Jack for the first time.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

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Elsewhere, a season’s worth of frustrating Randall storytelling finally feels like it’s starting to get somewhere, mostly by having Randall royally fuck up. The simmering tension between Randall and Beth is clear right from the beginning, as the two try to balance their conflicting dream jobs by sticking to a near-impossible timetable of shared duties. And that tension explodes when Randall mistakenly thinks Beth has blown off for his important work dinner and leaves a nasty, condescending voicemail calling her immature and irresponsible. Once Beth unexpectedly (or expectedly, if you’ve ever seen a TV show before) shows up to the dinner explaining that her phone died on the way there, the episode captures all the tension I felt was missing from last week’s waiting room episode. Beth dutifully plays her role of charismatic supporting wife, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s more than a little pissed at her husband. And she rightly lets him have it as soon as they’re outside. It’s a welcome moment of the season holding Randall accountable for once. I’m very curious to see what next week holds for them, and whether it could potentially salvage one of the weakest throughlines of the season.

And then there’s Kevin. On the surface, Kevin’s arc in this episode feels the most complete. Zoe tells him she doesn’t want kids and doesn’t want to waste time with him if he feels differently. Kevin finds an unexpected but effective sounding board in Sophie, and ultimately decides he’d rather have a future with Zoe than a future with kids. In the process he gets to make amends with his ex and send along genuine well wishes for her recent engagement. Done and done! If This Is Us wanted to, it could genuinely leave this as a resolved storyline. But I think (and hope) that we’re in for something more complicated.

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Besides some sweet Jack/Rebecca stuff, the biggest insight we get from the middle school dance storyline is a glimpse into how easily Kevin is able to manipulate people into doing what he wants. He can get a reluctant Sophie to participate in a toilet paper prank and receive his first kiss from her. Zoe points out the power of his charisma in couples therapy and present-day Sophie does the same in their coffee catch-up. Kevin is used to getting what he wants, and if what he secretly wants is to both be with Zoe and have kids with her, we could be in for a complex story about emotional manipulation in relationships. And given that Kevin has a pattern of returning to Sophie over and over again throughout his life, perhaps those Billy Joel tickets are as much another unconscious manipulation as they are an olive branch.

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There’s a fine line between writing flawed characters who are interesting to watch and flawed characters who are just frustrating. This Is Us has spent too much of this season on the wrong side of that line, but “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” steps over to right side. Hopefully the final two episodes of the season stay there.


Stray observations

  • The opening scene in the NICU is meant to serve as a bridge, but it’s weird that after spending all that time in the waiting room last week, none of the other Pearsons particularly seem to think or care about Kate, Toby, and Baby Jack in this episode.
  • It goes without saying at this point, but this was a beautifully acted episode from everybody in the cast, particularly Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan.
  • In their peevishly charming demeanors, Jack and middle school Kevin really felt like father and son in this episode.
  • Two things I hope This Is Us acknowledges going forward: Kevin’s celebrity (has his Ron Howard movie come out yet?) and Kate’s C-section recovery.
  • The prosthetic doll they use for Baby Jack is so realistic looking.
  • So what does Beth do during the mornings/afternoons when she’s not teaching? Personally, I’d pack the kids’ lunches then rather than late at night, but that’s just me.
  • It felt very strange that Jack and Rebecca tackled Randall’s test anxiety by telling him he had a commitment to his date, rather than emphasizing that it’s not a failing to get a 97.6 when the average is a 97.8.
  • That shot of middle school Kate dancing with her two friends was so sweet!

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