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This Is Us delves into cringe comedy with two riffs on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

Photo: Mitchell Haddad (NBC)
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“The Dinner And The Date” delivers exactly what I wish last week’s episode had: An hour of This Is Us that zeroes in on one specific thematic throughline and explores it in a structurally creative way. Writer Kay Oyegun has long been one of the major creative shepherds behind Randall’s corner of the This Is Us universe, penning episodes like “R&B” as well as the Deja-centric “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life.” She puts that expertise to great use in an episode that introduces a whole bunch of new complexities to Randall’s world, both in the past and the present. Oyegun also gets to try out a new tone for This Is Us, as the show delivers a level of sustained awkward tension it doesn’t usually aim for. That immediately makes “The Dinner And The Date” feel like a unique entry to the This Is Us canon.

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“The Dinner And The Date” should really be called “The Dinners And The Date,” as it centers on not one but two tense family dinners. It also continues the fourth season’s trend of letting flashback storylines play out two episodes at a time. This week’s past-set storyline picks up right where last week left off, with Mr. Lawrence and his wife Trish accepting Jack’s invitation to dinner. Meanwhile, in the present, Randall and Beth try to get ahead of their discomfort with Deja and Malik’s burgeoning relationship by inviting Malik’s family over for dinner. The specific catalyst is that Deja and Malik skipped school to spend the day exploring Philly together. And both sets of parents are convinced the other kid is the bad influence.

Though both dinners delve into some tense emotional complexities, the flashback storyline is ultimately the simpler one. For one thing, it’s easier to see where Jack and Mr. Lawrence are each coming from, even as Oyegun’s script also makes it clear that both of them are somewhat in the wrong. “The Dinner And The Date” mines some great comedy from the gently befuddled way Trish and Rebecca respond to the bizarre pissing contest their husbands find themselves in. It’s clear that Mr. Lawrence is overstepping just a bit in his well-meaning attempts to look out for Randall. But as Rebecca notes in one of the episode’s best scenes, Jack’s behavior is worse because he has the least amount to lose. Randall is always going to pick his beloved, heroic dad over any other potential mentor figures. It’s forcing his son to choose that’s cruel. Especially because having a black role model is clearly so vital for Randall’s sense of belonging.

In the end, Jack and Mr. Lawrence are able to resolve their conflict without too much fuss. An open, honest conversation about how they both have Randall’s best interests at heart is all they need to clear the air. As Mr. Lawrence points out, he and Randall only have so many school hours together. That makes negotiating a boundary fairly easy. Negotiating the boundaries of your teenager’s dating life, however, isn’t quite so simple.

While the husbands duke it out in the flashback, it’s the wives who go head-to-head in the present day. Despite Beth’s mantra about wearing open-toed shoes to represent her open-minded approach to the dinner, she rankles when Malik’s mom Kelly suggests that Deja is the one to blame for the kids skipping school. In the same way that Randall and Beth are quick to assume that because Malik is a teen father, he must be an irresponsible playboy, Kelly has her own preconceived notions based on Deja’s troubled past and Randall and Beth’s “bougie” lifestyle.

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While we’ve spent enough time with Randall and Beth to understand how their insular, frequently classist perspectives might emerge as a whole lot of judgment for a teen dad from North Philly, Kelly’s intense dislike of Deja feels pretty underdeveloped. It’s tension for tension’s sake, which undercuts the impact of the episode a bit. I hope we get a better sense of where she’s coming from in the future. I’m particularly curious about how Kelly and Darnell feel about Jennifer, the mother of Malik’s baby, and whether Kelly might be projecting some feelings about her onto Deja.

Photo: Mitchell Haddad (NBC)
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Of course, part of the fun of This Is Us is the way it invites a “what would you do in this scenario?” conversation around complex topics like parenting, and there’s certainly plenty of fodder for post-show discussions in this episode. Personally, I feel like Darnell’s relaxed approach is the healthiest attitude out of any of the parents. And, ultimately, “The Dinner And The Date” settles on the idea that the best way to parent is to trust and listen to your kids. It turns out that Deja actually shares Randall and Beth’s concerns about dating someone who’s older and more experienced than her. And Randall and Beth can rest easy knowing they’re raising a daughter who very much knows how to stand up for herself.

After spending their ditch day exploring the hip, local haunts of Philly, Deja pumps the breaks when things start to feel like they’re moving too fast with Malik. That allows the two teenagers to have the conversation their parents later try to have for them. Deja has big plans for her life and she doesn’t want to get caught up in a whirlwind teen romance with someone who just sees her as a disposal fling. Malik, meanwhile, gets the chance to explain that he isn’t a sex-crazed ladies man. Jennifer was his first girlfriend, and he mostly feels as overwhelmed by the idea of dating as Deja does—especially because he comes from a long line of happy long-term relationships and feels the pressure to live up to them.

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While it’s a little exhausting to watch This Is Us introduce yet another romantic, big-gesture-loving man into the show’s universe (welcome to the Jack/Randall/Toby/Kevin club, Malik!), Asante Blackk sells it really well. The scene where Malik gets the employees of Max’s Steaks to greet Deja as a regular is particularly sweet. And this episode finds a more specific anchor for the Deja/Malik romance beyond just Malik’s charms. His comfortable ties to city life remind Deja of how she grew up and who she is. That’s echoed in a lovely runner where Deja’s day with Malik allows her to unlock a memory of visiting Philly as a kid with her mom and grandma. (Good to see you again, Pam Grier!)

Randall and Beth eventually come around to the idea of listening to Deja, rather than just telling her what to do, which is how they get to hear firsthand about how Malik makes her feel. Jack also learns a lesson in the importance of listening to his son. Specifically, he listens to him recite the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too.” While Jack is used to being the dad with all the answers, these past two episodes have challenged him to embrace a new kind of parenting style. Here he and Randall settle on the idea of reading a book of Langston Hughes poems together, rather than either of them feeling like the only option is to read it on their own. Even when This Is Us takes a detour into cringe comedy, it can’t help but end things on a sweet note.

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Stray observations

  • My parents definitely never invited my teachers over for random get-to-know-you dinners. Is that a thing people actually did/still do?
  • There’s some really great comedy in this episode, including the runner about Kevin’s crush on Ms. Applebaum, and Malik’s mom’s confusion at Randall being related to the white Manny, not Morris Chestnut. I also really laughed at Rebecca’s gentle, “Hey, Jack, you can stop naming types of wood” as well as Annie’s blunt, “It’s crazy that you have a baby.”
  • The kitchen conversation between Jack and Rebecca gets even more complex when you consider that Rebecca is only a few years out from having cut off the chance for Randall to have a relationship with William for fear of losing her son to him.
  • Another unspoken element that hangs over this episode: Deja’s mom Shauna (who also has a brief cameo) was 16 when she had Deja.
  • I totally get Randall and Beth’s concerns about Deja dating someone who’s older than her and especially someone who has the responsibilities of fatherhood on his shoulders. But in terms of their specific fears that Malik will get Deja pregnant, if anything, I feel like a single teen dad would be way more adamant about preventing another unplanned pregnancy than your average teenage boy.
  • There’s a really bittersweet moment where Mr. Lawrence talks about Jack one day being a grandfather to Randall’s children.
  • Randall giving Deja and Malik a ship name is maybe just a little too cutesy for its own good, but I prefer “Maleja” to “Dejik.”
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About the author

Caroline Siede

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.