This is Us: Not a subtle show. But that’s part of the reason we watch every week, and why you’ve shown up to this space to read this review. It’s easy and lays everything bare without complicated metaphor. With two lines of dialogue in one scene, we get exactly why This Is Us is not a subtle show. But at the same time, these two lines are why this episode was actually pretty great. Unlike previous episodes, “The Big Day” stays firmly in 1980, so we get to spend more time with Dr. K, and meet his son and daughter-in-law who try to engage the good doctor about movies. “Life has enough twists,” Dr. K says in reference to the Empire Strikes Back. It’s a meta-dig at itself, which has built its reputation on these twists, but actually serves itself better when it stops focusing so much on the shocking and instead zeroes in on the show’s true emotional core. “The Big Day” didn’t rely on twists. By focusing on marriages in three different states, the episode found the emotional truth in these characters lives and the episode was all the better for it.
“The Big Day” featured two great performances, by two characters who haven’t really been given the opportunity to stretch. Gerald McRaney’s Dr. K has been the benevolent saint for the few episodes he’s appeared in. He doles out sayings and platitudes, but “The Big Day” gave him some meet. He shakes with anger as his son suggests that he move on from the death of his wife. It demonstrates the immense pain that this guy has been going through. He’s been ignoring his hurt in favor of talking to a woman that isn’t there. With only a few scenes, McRaney was able to expand what Dr. K was as a character, and exemplifies the complexity that every character — including the ones who are not in this episode — tries to embody in each episode. They don’t always succeed (cough, cough, Kate), but at least they try. Just as we watch This Is Us for its refusal to be subtle, we also watch it for those forced emotional heartstring tugs, and Dr. K played into that part perfectly. As soon as he shook with anger, or talked to the wife that wasn’t there, I had that visceral reaction as if I knew Dr. K myself. AKA, cue waterworks.
Dr. K’s plot exemplified how good it was when not relying on twists, by showing how its structure doesn’t always have conclude in a reveal, but can expand the story and the depth of these characters. When Dr. K originally gives Jack his monologue about the sourest lemons in This Is Us’ pilot, we think he’s talking solely about his own lost child and how he and his wife were able to move on. But the slow reveals of Dr. K’s story shows that he’s also giving himself a pump up speech, as we learned when he relays his day to his wife that isn’t there. “He took the worst that happened to him in his life and tried to push on,” Dr. K says to the empty seat. “There’s not a minute I don’t think about you but I hope you know, I hope this is what you want me to do. I expect it is.” It makes not only his current speech have more weight, but also changes how I feel about his original monologue.
The other great performance is from Mandy Moore, and that’s where the second very unsubtle line from that kitchen scene comes into play. Allie, Dr. K’s daughter-in-law discusses Ordinary People, featuring Mary Tyler Moore as a mother grieving after her son’s suicide. “It was really moving to see Mary play such a complicated mother. You don’t see that often,” Allie says. Ah, like the portrayal of a certain mother of triplets we’ve spent some time with?
Moore from the get-go has had a much tougher, or at least less glamorous, role than Milo Ventimiglia. He’s the saintly dad, his drinking problem cured within the running time of am episode, while Rebecca’s big plotline in the present involves her creating a deep rift with Randall that hasn’t fully been addressed yet. Take his big centerpiece scene in this episode: Jack eschews the sweet escape of male bonding so he can be with his wife at her worst. Another character even remarks that this will make them all look bad. Rebecca, on the other hand, spends much of the episode looking bad. She’s tired and pissed off and fat and none of her shoes fit. Moore doesn’t pull punches when it comes to portraying the worst of Rebecca, to the point where I thought the character wasn’t given a fair shake because of the sharp contrast between angelic dad and demonic mom. But I forgave those sins when Rebecca had a conversation with her swelling tummy (“I bet you will all have wildly different laughs,” she says), admitting that perhaps her ire wasn’t entire based on how her body was feeling, but the fear of creating life and not actually being any good at it. While it wasn’t as sharp, it reminded me of Catastrophe, in which Sharon Horgan portrays her expectant mother as someone who is not psyched about the bun in her oven, but can’t really back out of the proposition at this point either.
Of course, the firefighter who finds Randall also plays a part in this episode, and while this thread could have expanded the story in an interesting way, much like Dr. K’s did, it didn’t. Perhaps if the firefighter and his wife were not magically fixed by the specter of adoption, I would have been superficially happier. But, instead, the firefighter and his wife get to start anew at a diner, just like when they first met. It was cheesy as hell, but it wouldn’t be This Is Us if it wasn’t.