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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us tackles parenting during puberty and pandemics

Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /itackles parenting during puberty and pandemics
Photo: NBC
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This Is Us’ fifth season premiere had the massive hurdle of reintroducing the show in its new pandemic reality. This week, the series (mostly) gets back to business as usual. This is a sweet, gentle, slightly scattered episode that continues some threads from last week and introduces some new ones as well. It’s loosely centered around the theme of parenting during times of great change, be that the infant years or the teenage ones. And it ultimately hinges on the thesis that even the best parents make mistakes—especially when they’ve got more than one kid to deal with

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The middle school Big Three make their welcome return this week, all looking remarkably grown-up as they head into their 8th grade year! The Pearson family doctor wishes Jack and Rebecca luck when it comes to juggling three teens on the cusp of puberty, but all things considered our First Couple do pretty well for themselves. Rebecca follows her commitment to being a non-meddling “cool mom” and manages to make a sweet connection with Kate in the process. And Jack and Kevin enjoy some of the most purely joyful scenes we’ve ever seen between them as Jack teaches his son to lift weights with a gentler touch than his own father used on him.

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And yet even so, Jack and Rebecca still miss things. High on his father’s praise and the potential to be the next Terry Bradshaw (minus the hair loss), Kevin develops the beginnings of a workout addiction that will characterize his entire adult life. Randall, meanwhile, retreats into anxious, internalized shame when Kate’s friend Tonya flirts with him and then announces, “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to kiss someone like you.” Like Kevin, young Randall establishes a pattern that he’ll follow for most of his adult life.

With the help of his new therapist, present-day Randall is hoping to finally unpack his “transracial identity.” And Tonya’s comment is a perfect example of how complex that experience is. You understand both why the comment lands so jarringly with young Randall and why he doesn’t bring it up to his mom when she asks how his day was. It’s the sort of subtle racist othering that’s hard to explain and easy for white people to write off, especially those with a penchant for giving people the benefit of the doubt or looking on the bright side. While we don’t know how Rebecca would’ve responded if Randall had told her what happened, it almost certainly would’ve required a lot of emotional labor on his part to get her to understand how it made him feel. So he just internalizes it instead.

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That’s why Randall is at least a little bit proud that his daughter is already willing to call out microaggressions and stand up for herself and her friends. As Tess heads into her own teenage years, Randall and Beth find themselves in the tricky situation of parenting their daughter as she fights for an ideal they believe in but in a manner they don’t. (“I’m done being the prissy, quiet little girl you raised in the straight white suburbs, surrounded by straight white people,” Tess proclaims.) While, personally, I couldn’t be prouder of Tess for becoming an anti-fascist provocateur, the “screw you!” dance video she makes with her non-binary friend Alex earns her a six-week grounding. Still, Randall manages to communicate the punishment while still empathizing with his daughter in the process, which is a pretty big parenting win.

Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /itackles parenting during puberty and pandemics
Photo: NBC
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Randall’s storyline also continues a lingering question I had about the premiere: Is this season complicating Randall’s season four arc or retconning it? After years of delivering magical solutions that didn’t hold Randall accountable for his actions, This Is Us finally seemed poised to dig into his controlling, manipulative side during the conflict over Rebecca’s clinical trial. Yet so far, these episodes have largely treated the explosive season four finale fight as something that Kevin alone has to make amends for. (Even the premiere’s “previously on” segment emphasized Kevin’s insult to Randall but not what Randall said first to provoke it.) I hope the show’s renewed focus on Randall’s identity doesn’t erase the equally fascinating exploration of his flaws.

The rest of this episode focuses on pregnancy experiences that fall outside the stereotypical norm, which is an always welcome subject for TV shows to tackle. Madison opens up to Kevin about the difficulties of being pregnant while in recovery for bulimia. Logically, she knows that eating and gaining weight are important for the health of her babies. But it’s also hard to rewire her brain after years of disordered eating. She mentions a particularly bad experience at 17, and I’d love for this season to do a Madison flashback episode as she and Kevin continue their pledge to be more open and honest with one another.

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Elsewhere, Kate and Toby meet with a potential birth mom who isn’t anything like the typical “knocked-up teen” stereotype. Ellie (Annie Funke) is a 33-year-old widow with an 8-year-old daughter named Willow. Her current pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand, and after much consideration she’s decided she’d like to place the baby with adoptive parents. This Is Us tends to be strongest when it’s dealing with unique, specific experiences. And Ellie’s unusual story—coupled with Funke’s wonderfully warm performance—makes this a really intriguing thread for the season. We know Toby and Kate eventually end up adopting a daughter, but is it the one Ellie is currently carrying?

Illustration for article titled iThis Is Us /itackles parenting during puberty and pandemics
Photo: NBC
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Less intriguing is the latest continuation of the mystery of Randall’s birth mom. Though it’s effectively disorienting to start this episode with a Vietnamese man and his granddaughter fishing in an unknown time and place, in the end this is one of those classic This Is Us teases that’s all style and little substance. The man is somehow connected to Laurel, but where and how is anyone’s guess. And unlike adorably precocious Lin, I’m not quite so delighted by the overly cutesy mystery. It’s not a disastrous addition (at least not yet), but it’s also not what I tune into this show for—as much as the writers seem to think it is.


Stray observations

  • It looks like Lin and her grandfather are living in either a houseboat or a trailer. Maybe they’ll wind up crossing paths with Uncle Nicky?
  • Jack generally isn’t the most emotionally articulate man, which is why I was very impressed by the way he met Rebecca’s waffling over Kevin’s weightlifting with a gentle but firm, “Say the thing you want to say.”
  • My perpetual question for this show: How famous is Kevin? Given how frequently he seems to book big movie roles, it feels like he’d also have to deal with increased media attention after moving in with a woman who’s pregnant with his twins.
  • Rebecca and Miguel send balloons to celebrate Kevin and Madison’s “non-traditional” engagement, but I’m unclear if that means they’re back in L.A. with the rest of the gang or if they stayed at the cabin.
  • There’s a cute and obviously unplanned moment where Mandy Moore almost spills a bowl of Funyuns, and I like that the show left it in.
  • Madison got a soft character reboot heading into this pregnancy storyline, but the idea that she goes to Outlander conventions is perfectly in line with who she’s always been.
  • “Jeez Doc, would it kill you to have a Consumer Reports lying around?” Never change, little Randall!
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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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