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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /ireturns with romantic complications and a John Legend concert
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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“Light And Shadows” is an exceptionally well-acted hour of TV. That’s something of a given for This Is Us, but even by those standards, director Yasu Tanida (the show’s long-time cinematographer) does a masterful job coaching nuanced, layered performances from his cast. That elevates a script that’s relatively straightforward and just a touch too sentimental at times. As is usually the case for This Is Us’ winter premieres, “Light And Shadows” gently eases viewers back into the world of the show. And while that means the episode’s terrifying home invasion cliffhanger is an especially shocking endpoint, the rest of the hour captures the unshowy stuff that makes This Is Us so compelling to watch between all the big twists.

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The best example is the Kate/Toby storyline, which sees the two directly address the tension that’s been building between them all season. We’ve seen plenty of Kate/Toby fights in the past, but there’s something different about the way they talk to each other in this episode. In place of the usual melodrama, there’s a quiet calmness that sits somewhere between maturity and resignation. After moving past Toby’s CrossFit text thread drama (Kate was right to be suspicious of “Lady Kryptonite” a.k.a. Kara, Toby was honest that he only sees her as a friend), they finally get to the heart of the distance that’s emerged in their marriage: Kate’s determination to fill her son’s life with positivity hasn’t left any space for Toby to process the sadness he feels about his son’s disability.

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They don’t really resolve the fight so much as put it on pause as they bask in the excitement of discovering Baby Jack can see light and shadow (which is something we already knew from the flashforwards in the season premiere). Still, it’s a much more interesting setup for a marital conflict than a storyline about Toby cheating on Kate with his hot gym friend. If This Is Us allows Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan to continue turning in this kind of grounded, mature acting work, I’m excited to watch Kate and Toby’s relationship drama unfold in the back half of the season, which isn’t something I necessarily would’ve said in the past.

One of the major themes of “Light And Shadows” is that all relationships have their ups and downs—even the ones that appear picture perfect from the outside. It’s a lesson Kevin learns the hard way as his seemingly perfect meet cute/private John Legend concert with L.A. tourist Lizzy (Sophia Bush) implodes when it turns out she’s a married fan too anxious to actually invoke her “hall pass” with her celebrity crush. It’s a goofy diversion designed to pull the rug out from under the audience, although the episode telegraphs that something is up pretty early. (I thought Lizzy was going to turn out to be a celebrity gossip reporter.) The final twist in Kevin’s storyline is that he gets a call from Sophie just as he gives up hope of ever recreating his parents’ “effortlessly magical” love story.

Yet as This Is Us has shown many times before, Jack and Rebecca’s pitch-perfect relationship actually did take a lot of effort on both of their parts. While Miguel and Randall accompany Rebecca to a neurologist appointment in the present, the past-set portion of “Light And Shadows” picks up directly after the events of the “The Club,” in which Jack received a harsh dressing down from Rebecca’s dad following their golf game. It’s enough to shake his confidence and inspire him to break up with Rebecca for fear of not being able to provide her with the kind of life she wants.

Because we know that 1970s Rebecca and Jack ultimately make it work and because we know that present-day Rebecca is headed for a bad diagnosis, there’s a risk of both of these storylines lacking stakes. And to some extent they kind of do. The reveal that Rebecca was the first one to say “I love you” (with encouragement from her mom, no less!) is sweet, but doesn’t quite pack the same punch as the reveal that Rebecca was the one who kept their marriage together back in “A Father’s Advice.” Once again, however, the performances elevate the material.

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Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /ireturns with romantic complications and a John Legend concert
Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

Mandy Moore proves she deserves every acting award in the book for her ability to play an earnest, optimistic 20-something and a scared, reserved 70-something all in one episode. The only justification I have for why people aren’t constantly shouting from the rooftops about Moore’s performance is because she’s so fantastic at playing Rebecca in every timeline that it’s easy to forget she’s not actually an old woman or a 50-something mom or a young 1970s singer. Here, Moore’s flawless dual performances allow this episode to find bittersweet poignancy in contrasting young Rebecca fighting for her future with older Rebecca terrified of losing her past.

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Sterling K. Brown and especially Jon Huertas both get well-deserved chances to shine too. This Is Us often uses Miguel as affable comedic relief, but Huertas gets appreciably meaty material to sink his teeth into this week, particularly as he butts heads with Randall over Rebecca’s health. From denial to anger to shock to sadness, Miguel rapidly processes the stages of grief all while remaining a supportive partner for his wife, who is diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment” including memory loss and spatial dysfunction (The doctors need to run more tests before they can tell anything more specific.) While Rebecca’s relationship with Jack was a flashy fairy tale romance for the ages, her partnership with Miguel is an example of the less showy kind of enduring love her mom argues is just as important.

The other big thing of note in “Light And Shadow” is the way it ever so slightly shifts the lens on the show’s multi-timeline structure. Previously, the past-set storylines have always felt like an objective look at the Pearsons’ life. In “Light And Shadow,” however, Tanida uses hazy transitions and snippets of Joni Mitchell’s “California” to make them feel more like subjective flashbacks. That’s most obvious in Rebecca’s story about spending mornings with Baby Randall, although you can feel it in the Jack/Rebecca subplot too. The sweepingly romantic moment in which sparks (literally) fly as Jack and Rebecca kiss feels far more like a nostalgic memory than an objective event.

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As the state of Rebecca’s memory becomes an active plot point, I wouldn’t be surprised if This Is Us starts to change the way it uses its multi-timeline structure. Present-day Rebecca describes how hard she worked to memorize every detail of her mornings with Baby Randall in order to hold onto those fleeting moments forever. That’s something Rebecca could be doing a lot more of as hanging onto her past (and specifically her memories of Jack) becomes something she must actively fight for.


Stray observations

  • The cliffhanger of Randall facing off against an armed home invader is legitimately terrifying. I’m very curious to see what next week brings.
  • The Lizzy storyline was a bit too goofy for me, but thanks for stopping by and singing John Legend!
  • I was genuinely very excited to see Sophie’s name pop up on Kevin’s phone. We don’t know if she’ll wind up being Kevin’s pregnant fiancée, but at least we know she’s still in the game!
  • In terms of small but incredibly effective acting choices: Sterling K. Brown adopts this wonderful childlike earnestness as Rebecca tells the story of sitting up with Baby Randall in the morning. It’s a lovely acting choice to complement an all-around lovely scene.
  • “This family flies across country at the drop of a hat and this is actually important, Miguel, so of course I’m coming.” Hey, at least they lampshaded how often the Pearsons improbably hop on a plane!
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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.

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