This Is Us is not a guilty pleasure. I don’t believe in those on television because you either like something or you don’t, and feeling guilt about watching television is a waste of brain cells. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have all the makings of guilty pleasure. Sometimes, it’s so earth-shatteringly cheesy that I feel like I have to start counting calories, Kate-style. But when it comes to what I’m going to watch first on a given Tuesday, I’m always the most excited about This Is Us. I understand how this show plays with my brain, forces me to feel even when it doesn’t earn it. And yet, I still tune dutifully every week because sometimes I don’t mind when my brain is played with, and my heartstrings forcefully tugged.
Credit where credit is due: A big reason that I can shut down the part of my critical thinking that points out the show’s weaker moments is that the cast is stacked with actors who are affable screen presences, and who are pulling off characters that are different, yet all inherently likable as well. But This Is Us has this magnetic quality since the beginning, and continues to during the show’s sixth episode, “Career Days,” because it makes its audience feel. Makes even seems like too weak of a word; it forces its audience to feel. I haven’t seen a show that is effectively emotionally forceful since Parenthood (you’re thinking of Kristina in the midst of her chemo, aren’t you? And you’re starting to tear up, aren’t you? It’s okay, it got a little dusty in the room I’m in, too). No scene is left emotionally unburdened, and that’s what makes it so utterly watchable. It’s whether you can accept that you are being emotionally played and go along with show’s weaker moments that inspire the early stages of devotion. As I write this, it seems like I’m fighting my own affection for This Is Us, and I have great affection for this show. Perhaps it’s because I can see proverbial man behind the curtain, making sure I well up at least once an hour. And, yet, I don’t really care. “Career Days” didn’t even force moments of emotional catharsis as much as other episodes, in part because it didn’t have the twists that we’ve come to expect. But even as one of This Is Us’ more lackluster episodes, “Career Days” drew me in in a way that makes me want write things like “All the feels.”
But, man, do the scenes that work, work. Each episode of This Is Us features some analog with Jack in the past, or at the very least a way for his children now to connect with him then. When young Randall tugs at his ties, signaling to his dad in his own mini-Carol Burnett way, I actually cooed. That moment earned its emotional resonance even if the previous Jack-Randall scene — where Jack browbeats Randall into doing math to prove his own brilliance — was one those moments where This Is Us is piles on the musical cues and paternal bonding. The man behind the curtain is making himself known, and he’s not earning his keep.
“Career Days” was very much a Randall episode. Sterling K. Brown can elevate the material that he’s working with in such a way that it doesn’t feel as cloying in his hands as it can feel in others. “Trading commodities based on long term weather patterns is not boring,” is a line that works coming out of Brown’s mouth because he can find the incredulous humor — in the disbelief that his children would not find his work fascinating — in it. But it also helps that Randall is the most developed and interesting of the characters. Not only does he have his storyline with William to figure out, but he also is the sole black member of the Pearson family and the show’s (slow) willingness to explore how that makes him different and separates him from not just his siblings but his parents that gives This Is Us a depth that a lesser show would not have explored. “The Pool’s” use of this “black mentor” to Jack and Rebecca worked better than she did in “Career Days,” but points for trying.
Kate and Kevin have not fared as well as Randall since the beginning of the show if only because their journeys of self-discovery pale in comparison to their adopted brother’s (I promise, no pun intended). Whereas Randall has a full life, dealing with not only the new addition of his biological father but also his relationship with his wife and children, Kate and Kevin are symbols based around their looks and that’s sometimes not enough. Kate has only been the fat character, Kevin is the hot character, both are plagued by a self doubt that sometimes seems unearned and that Randall does not possess in the same capacity. I’m glad that Kate is finally getting something to do other than obsess about her weight because one of the few obese characters on television should get to have a life that goes beyond her surface looks. But even as she gets a job and is given professional ambitions, the focus of her story is still her weight. I was surprised that Kevin bagged his co-star so fast, if only because that was a hook-up that was telegraphed a mile away. And, of course, the sexy, quirky, aloof woman still teaches Kevin a lesson in the process. Even though he got an emotional setpiece that could rival Randall’s, Kevin’s plotline was about his inability feel grief and that man behind the curtain pokes his head out once more.
Despite these valid criticisms of This Is Us, I still hunger for more of this show. When it had an off week, I was disappointed because my television-based emotional outlet wasn’t there. I can scoff at these plot developments with Kevin — a successful, attractive white man so crippled by self doubt — or sigh when a joke about [insert healthy food here] is made at Kate’s expense, or sit through yet another parental breakthrough between William and Randall. And yet, I’m still drawn to these people and their stories. This show may be manipulating me into feeling but I’m totally buying it at this point, and will until they stop selling it convincingly.