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This Is Us’ fourth season premiere plays like the pilot to a whole new series

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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The reason the big twist at the end of the This Is Us pilot worked so well is because no one was expecting a twist from a series that had been billed as a sentimental drama about strangers who share the same birthday. It’s a trick the series could only ever pull off once. So even though in many ways the season four premiere, “Strangers,” feels a whole lot like that pilot, the experience of watching it is totally different. That episode was about introducing us to the complex emotional realities of a set of characters before landing at a surprising endpoint. This one is about using the complex emotional realities of a brand new set of characters to tease out a big reveal we all know is coming.

Other than a throughline about Jack meeting Rebecca’s parents after their impulsive two-week road trip to L.A., most of “Strangers” is dedicated to introducing a new cast of characters to the This Is Us universe. There’s Cassidy Sharp (Jennifer Morrison), a Marine struggling with the transition back into civilian life. There’s Malik (When They See Us’ Asante Blackk), a loving teen dad raising a baby daughter with the help of his own parents, played by Omar Epps and Marsha Stephanie Blake. And there’s a mysterious blind singer (Blake Stadnik) who romances a waitress named Lucy (Auden Thornton) in a plot that leaps through their courtship.

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The question hanging over the episode is how these new characters fit in with the Pearsons we know and love. I was desperately trying to keep track of technology, clothing, and pop culture references to figure out what kind of timeline shenanigans might be at play. In the end, however, two of the reveals are pretty simple. Malik is a classmate at Deja’s new school in Philly and they meet-cute at a barbecue. Cassidy, meanwhile, has a run-in with Nicky when he drunkenly smashes a window at the Pennsylvania Veterans Affairs center where she’s seeking support. Though Nicky made a clean break with the Pearson family back in “Songbird Road: Part Two,” he calls Kevin to bail him out from jail, presumably bringing Kevin into Cassidy’s life as well. (We already knew from the third season finale that Nicky would reconnect with the Pearsons at some point, we just weren’t sure when or how.)

You could argue that introducing Malik and Cassidy as leads of their own narratives is a way to give their characters a sense of gravitas they might not otherwise have had if, say, we met Malik through Deja’s eyes and then slowly learned about his family situation, or if Cassidy befriended Nicky and then got a big dramatic flashback episode halfway through the season. You could also argue that introducing Malik and Cassidy in this way is a cheap narrative trick designed to give a sense of shock value to what’s ultimately just the fairly standard addition of some new supporting cast members. I’d say it’s a little of column A and a lot of column B.

To its credit, however, the episode does at least deliver an honest-to-god major twist with its third new character. The mysterious singer turns out to be a grown-up Jack Damon a.k.a. Kate and Toby’s baby son, who’s left blind as a result of his premature birth. (Like a lot of legally blind people, Jack isn’t completely blind. He can see light and vague shapes.) Though the timeline isn’t entirely clear yet, Jack—who I’m going to start calling Jack Jr., just so these reviews don’t become impossible to read—seems to exist even further into the future than the flashforwards centered around Rebecca’s ailing days. As with a lot of This Is Us’ big reveals, it’s both kind of moving and kind of silly. There’s something inherently emotional about seeing the image of a baby contrasted with the adult they grow up to be. But adding even more timelines and twists into the mix also threatens to make This Is Us feel like a parody of itself. When in doubt, just add a new generation!

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Yet while there’s always a chance that future episodes will jump even further into the future to offer a glimpse into the life of Lucy and Jack Jr.’s as-yet-unborn child, Jack Jr. seems specifically designed to be a sort of uber-Pearson (even if he’s technically a Damon). His rockstar success fulfills the musical dreams of both his mom and his grandma. His love story with Lucy echoes the romantic nature of his namesake grandfather. He has Kevin’s swagger, Toby’s sense of humor, and Randall’s love of family. Jack Jr. is thrilled about his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, while Lucy, who planned to prioritize her restaurant career before starting a family, is more anxious about it—an echo of the many Pearson women who’ve navigated the tricky line between motherhood and career ambition.

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Unfortunately, Lucy and Jack Jr.’s rushed, montage-heavy courtship doesn’t do either character any favors, especially when his initial wooing comes off just a tad creepy and their massive career success seems to come way too easily. It remains to be seen whether they’ll actually be major players going forward or just something we check in on periodically, like the other flashforward storyline. They’re set up like important additions, but it’s also hard to imagine an NBC family drama that has an entire storyline set circa 2044. Will there be glimpses of hologram technology and self-driving cars too?

Cassidy and Malik are a more natural fit for the series because their stories reflect themes that are already central to the This Is Us universe. Malik’s story is about parenthood, family, and the capricious circumstances that shape our lives. Cassidy’s story is also about family and parenthood, but it combines those themes with an interest in war and the experience of veterans, which became an unexpected cornerstone of This Is Us last year. Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War is one that didn’t always feel like a “real war” to those back home—as Rebecca’s father (Tim Matheson) indelicately puts it. But as Jack counters, a war is very real to those who lived through it, regardless of how the history books choose to categorize it. That’s a reality Cassidy is struggling with as she accidentally lashes out at her son while trying to wrap her mind around the fact that the $1,200 cost to repair her broken water heater is the same amount of money the U.S. government paid out for civilian casualties.

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Though “Strangers” has a better sense of momentum than last season’s rather lackluster premiere, it’s hard to know what to make of it as an episode in its own right. Once Malik, Cassidy, Jack Jr., and their respective worlds are woven more firmly into the fabric of This Is Us, “Strangers” might play like the nostalgic beginnings of a welcome new era of the series. Or it could be the tipping point where This Is Us officially bit off more than it could chew. There’s a danger of adding more breadth to a show that’s still lacking in depth elsewhere. (It seems like there’s still so much of the Big Three’s twenties to be explored.) After an uneven third season, season four is poised to be the moment where This Is Us either re-finds its feet or goes entirely off the rails. Now that’s a mystery worth tuning in for.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to coverage of This Is Us! I hope everyone used the off-season to check out Sterling K. Brown’s crime thriller, Milo Ventimiglia’s bizarre dog racecar movie, and Mandy Moore’s new music.
  • Am I crazy or did this episode try to pass off a full-grown Pomeranian as a Husky puppy?
  • More and more it seems like Dan Fogelman’s much-mocked film Life Itself just might turn out to be the key to understanding how This Is Us will eventually wrap up.
  • Asante Blackk is a very young looking 17-year-old, which makes the reveal that Malik is a father feel especially jarring. But I also think we’re so used to 20-somethings playing teenagers that we sometimes forget what actual teenagers look like.
  • The most exciting thing about the introduction of Malik is that it seems to set up Deja as a major player this season, which is always a good thing. 
  • I’d misremembered Miguel being the one who was planning to rob the bar with Jack back in “Moonshadow.” But, nope, the two future best friends meet in this episode as Jack buys (well, more like borrows) a suit jacket from the store where Miguel works. There’s also a moment rich with dramatic irony when Jack tells Miguel that Rebecca is the dream woman any man would want to marry.
  • I thought This Is Us was maybe just going to retcon Rebecca’s as-yet-unseen sister out of existence, but she gets a mention here as Rebecca’s dad warns Jack that his daughter deserves better than an emotionally tortured guy with no job stability.
  • Omar Epps and Jennifer Morrison co-starred on House together, while Asante Blackk and Marsha Stephanie Blake were both in When They See Us. This Is Us certainly likes to keep things in the family!
  • I’m sorry, but Jack Jr.’s song is terrible.
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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.