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This Is Us finally remembers that one of its characters is a celebrity

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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“You have a weird life.”

The reason I so often ask about Kevin’s level of fame in these reviews is because being famous has a pretty major impact on your day-to-day existence. That’s a reality that This Is Us only intermittently wants to acknowledge, usually for comedic purposes—like when Kevin used his fame to help Randall’s campaign. But “Flip A Coin” finally deals with Kevin’s celebrity head on. As Cassidy realizes while watching Kevin masterfully handle an interaction with a star-struck fan, his life is really unusual. So while Kevin’s problems may be movie star problems, they’re still problems. And they’re specifically problems that most people in his life can’t relate to, even as the world expects him to be perpetually perky and selfie-ready.

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The movie star problem that sends Kevin reeling this week is news that The Manny is getting cancelled. He hasn’t been on the series for years (in a picture perfect bit of fictional casting, Morris Chestnut is the actor who replaced him), but it still feels like a momentous shift. The Manny was a major chapter in Kevin’s life and that chapter is now officially closing, which sends him right back to the memories of how it began. While “Flip A Coin” contrasts Randall and Kate’s present day stories with moments from their post-high-school teenage years (welcome to the new season Hannah Zeile and Niles Fitch!), Kevin’s past-set storyline takes place just eight years ago, when he was filming The Manny pilot.

Kevin (and Kate, who’s around for moral support/assistant duties) would’ve been about 31 at the time, just a few years out from when we saw the Big Three as 28-year-olds in the second season episode “The 20’s.” Filming The Manny pilot was a major turning point in Kevin’s life, not just because it’s the show that made him famous, but also because he achieved that fame just as he was starting to question whether it was something he actually wanted. Kevin’s speech to Kate about how acting was just something he fell into after Jack’s death seems to be more than just the panicked ramblings of a performer worried that his career isn’t where he wants it to be. Kevin has a breakthrough that maybe what he actually wants is a simple small town life with a wife and kids.

Ironically, it’s Kevin’s natural paternal instincts that wind up steering him away from that dream. While filming the pilot, he soothes his crying baby co-star and finds a moment of genuine humanity in a series meant to be filled with cheap laughs. It’s the scene that made the show a hit, and the one fans most often bring up when they meet him. It’s a turning point Kevin perhaps wishes he could take back, but since the Pearsons know better than anyone that you can’t undo the past, all Kevin can do now is press on with carving out a new found-family dynamic with Cassidy and Nicky.

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Kevin’s storyline is a welcome refresh, one that nods towards where he’s been while pointedly steering his story in a new direction. My only complaint was going to be that it seemed weird to watch the younger version of Kevin opine about his domestic dreams without acknowledging the fact that by that point in his life, he’d already been married and divorced. Thankfully, “Flip A Coin” hadn’t forgotten about that detail after all. The episode ends with teenage Kevin calling home to thank his mom for the care package she sent and then casually revealing that he and Sophie got married.

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In the way that “The Pool: Part Two” and “Unhinged” told one continuous story about the Big Three preparing to head into seventh grade, “Flip A Coin” and next week’s episode look like they’re going to tell a continuous story about this period in the Big Three’s teenage years. It’s an intriguing new approach for the series, and while it leaves some things in this episode feeling a tad unfinished—like Kate’s flirtations with a cute record store employee, which will be continued next week—it has the potential to give the flashback storylines even more depth.

The rest of “Flip A Coin” is about new chapters and old patterns. Back in the late 1990s, Rebecca uses Parents Weekend at Carnegie Mellon as a chance to thrust herself into Randall’s new life. In a moment straight out of a horror movie, Rebecca crashes the mother/daughter lunch of a classmate her son has gone on one (bad!) date with. In the end, however, everything works out okay. Beth winds up changing her mind about Randall after he sweetly remembers that she likes lemon with her coke and hands over a slice without even thinking about it. Plus Rebecca gets the push she needs to start a new chapter of her own life after seeing the resilient way in which Carol (a returning Phylicia Rashad) has handled her own grief at losing her husband (albeit, under very different circumstances).

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Phylicia Rashad doesn’t just pop up in the flashback storyline, she’s in the present as well. She arrives in Philly for the grand opening of Beth’s new dance studio, which is nearly waylaid by a dead possum stinking up the place. It’s a goofy dilemma that feels like something straight out of The Manny, but it gives Randall a chance to prove to his mother-in-law that he actually is the strong, stable partner she feared he wouldn’t be able to become when she met him as a teenager. Though it’s an emotional breakthrough that neatly dovetails with the flashback storyline, it also feels rather odd that this random dance studio opening is the thing to finally thaws the ice between Randall and Carol. Surely Randall’s done more impressive things in the past decade than move some folding tables into a parking lot?

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The more interesting half of Randall’s present day storyline flips the script so that he’s now the judgmental parent worried about his daughter dating the wrong kind of boy. When Randall meets Malik, what starts as adorable dad awkwardness turns into a pretty wild overshare as he opens up to a 16-year-old stranger about how he and his wife are handling the stress of their big move. (Randall really is his mother’s son.) But that’s nothing compared to the horribly judgmental way in which Randall and Beth handle the news that Malik has a daughter. They’re all but ready to forbid Deja from dating him—although, as Beth herself should know, that kind of parental meddling doesn’t always lead to the desired results.

The Malik story is mostly left hanging, as are a lot of elements of this week’s episode. “Flip A Coin” functions more as a piece of a larger serialized story than as an episode in its own right, which makes it a little hard to judge as a single hour. But Julia Brownell’s script is full of the kind of wonderfully lived-in little moments that so often make This Is Us sing. There’s a sweet realism to the way teenage Beth asks her mom whether it was awkward to hang out with Rebecca, and I could write a whole book about how great the lemon moment is as a romantic gesture. From Kevin’s masterful glad-handing of fans to Rebecca and Carol bonding over not wanting to take off their wedding rings, “Flip A Coin” smarty mines its storytelling from the unique specificity of This Is Us’ world. It’s a building block for the season that feels like so much more than that.

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Stray observations

  • Save for a brief shot of him dancing to Carole King with Rebecca, this is an almost entirely Jack-free episode. I wonder if that’s why the show gave him that unnecessary subplot last week.
  • I’m curious to know how Rebecca and Carol’s relationship has evolved over the years. Phylicia Rashad does a wonderful job conveying the fact that Carol genuinely seems to enjoy spending the afternoon with Rebecca, even as she’s also judgmental of the way Rebecca has let grief break her.
  • That was some truly terrible green screen in the scenes of Kate and Toby driving. Also, I agree with Gregory that Baby Jack seems awfully young to be enrolled in a baby music classic, even if it is technically open to newborns.
  • Nicky shares a sad (and in its own way, deeply relatable) story about risking it all for a girl named Sally only to take the fact that she wasn’t at home when he showed up to surprise her as a sign that he should immediately give up forever.
  • Also, Kevin uses his “Hollywood douchebag money” to buy a fancy trailer and park it next to Nicky’s. Plus he commits to helping Cassidy—who finally feels like she comes into her own as a character this episode—win back her husband.
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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.