I so thoroughly enjoyed everything about this episode of This Is Us for so many different reasons, but above all, it was well-balanced. It wasn’t overloaded with cheese, but it had its moments of drama, and there was just enough of the schmaltz that I watch this show for.
And, above all, it was funny.
I’ve been thinking about why I will put up with the emotional manipulation that This Is Us is so good at, and has gotten even better at as the show has progressed. It’s because the show is funny, and takes the time to make a joke or throw in a one-liner without bashing us over the head with this forced emotion. It makes it all go down that much smoother, and makes those times when the music swells and we’re supposed to feel something—y’know really FEEL SOMETHING—seem earned. The humor also makes all of the characters inherently likable, and when certain characters forget that they can be funny—Kate, Rebecca, even Jack—the show itself loses its way. But the last few episodes in particular have done a good job of keeping that balance in its own way.
Kevin has spent most of the series being the source of this humor, his quick wit and general anxiety contrasting his pretty boy facade. He’s no exception here, bringing bitchy Katie Couric into our collective lives (“Let’s get out of here. I’ve got to play tennis with Salman Rushdie.”). Before his play, he teems with nerves, even reaching out to Miguel for help in a scene that is both funny and sweet. Miguel tells Kevin that he reminds him of his best friend and that when he’s feeling unsure, he should remember that he’s Jack Pearson’s son.
But the patriarch he’s remembering is as much of a legend and an ideal as he can be a real person. It’s been established that Jack has his fantastic patriarchal qualities. But that sainthood often didn’t feel true to an ensemble full of characters with affable flaws, and it served to make Rebecca seem like this nagging bitch when, in fact, she wasn’t. But this episode began to break down that perfect visage in the way that the previous alcoholism reveal never really tried to do. Rebecca has a legitimate argument; she’s given up so much of her adult life to her family that she needs something for herself, even if it wasn’t convenient. At first, Jack seems so entirely progressive by making it easier for her to go. But he’s not being honest with himself or her, leading to their fight. It’s not her relationship with a band member that causes his walkout—that may be a symptom of his dissatisfaction, not a cause of it. “I was trying to be a good guy,” Jack tells Rebecca in their Valentine’s Day showdown. “I thought you deserved something for yourself,” he continues. “And now I don’t,” she responds. Instead of standing up and regrouping, figuring out how he will cope while she goes on a tour with a guy who she hasn’t dated since she was 19, he bails and buys a drink.
But in Kevin’s mind, Jack Pearson doesn’t bail. Jack Pearson’s the consummate hero, and that’s okay because that’s the image Kevin needs to be the best man he can be, to figure that his brother is in pain and run to him, even if it means leaving Sloane alone on the stage in front of the New York Times critics.
While that image serves to make Kevin a better man for his family, it’s also crippling Kate to the point where she can’t talk about her father’s death with the man she’s supposed to marry. Their disturbing lack of knowledge about each other gave way to meaningful conversation between the two of them that illuminated Toby as much as it did Kate. He seems like this happy-go-lucky guy (“Why are you so jealous, Toby? You’re usually so confident and care-free and well hung.”). I like the added layer that this guy has his own issues to work out as well. Just as Jack’s perfect facade was broken down, so was Toby’s.
The one thing that bothered me about this episode came to an end: Duke. His parents own the camp so he can be a creepy stalker dick to campers? He’s a full-grown adult who still insists on acting like a petulant teenager because he’s got some fat camp parental complex (without even mentioning his similarities to Jared Leto). But Duke is out of the picture, he served his purpose of giving Kate and Toby a reason to be open and honest with each other in a way Jack and Rebecca likely should have been. I might be extrapolating because this episode put me in a good mood, but hopefully This Is Us, like it’s ensemble dramedy forefathers Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, can harness its larger cast to recalibrate when plots go off the rails. I’m not saying it’s the second season Tyra-Landry Murder Plot, but it’s a good sign that the show has the flexibility to cut plots off when they’re not working.