Between last year’s second season premiere and tonight’s third season one, This Is Us has established a template for its season starters: Deliver a low-key episode that reminds the audience how incredibly endearing the show’s actors are; offer a general sense of where the major storylines are going; then end the whole thing with a cliffhanger tease that hints at a big ongoing mystery. The second season premiere ended with Rebecca crying outside the burnt rubble of her family’s home, thereby establishing the mystery of how Jack died as a central part of the season. Tonight’s premiere ends with another flashforward to the future timeline in which Randall, grownup Tess, and now Toby don’t seem to be doing so well. The cliffhanger does what it needs to do in that it makes me wonder what’s going on. But this future-set mystery also feels a lot more nebulous and arbitrary than the mystery of Jack’s death. I’m curious, but more so about what the show is trying to do than about the actual emotions that are involved.
The rest of the episode is fine, if not exactly spectacular. The present-day storylines introduce us to the major arcs of the season, many of which we already glimpsed in the montage at the end of season two. Randall and Beth are continuing down the path of officially adopting Deja. Kevin is pursuing a romantic relationship with Beth’s cousin Zoe while preparing for the release of his big Ron Howard movie. After their miscarriage last season, Kate and Toby are trying to get pregnant again, this time using IVF—something Toby has a lot of anxiety about. Meanwhile, back in the past, we get a glimpse of Jack and Rebecca’s first date, which isn’t as idyllic as we might have thought.
The first date storyline speaks to a limitation This Is Us sometimes runs up against with its multi-timeline storytelling. There’s just not a lot of tension in watching the minor ups and downs of a storyline with a preordained ending. I was interested in Jack and Rebecca’s first date when it gave us insights into their characters (like Jack’s references to serving in Vietnam) or when it gave us a sense of their early relationship dynamic. But I was much less interested in the show trying to sell their early courtship as some kind of twisty, turny mystery. We already know they go on to be a happily married couple, there’s really only so much suspense the show can shoehorn in there.
That being said, I don’t want to undersell the fact that there are some really lovely moments in Jack and Rebecca’s first date storyline, particularly their conversation in the car where Jack confesses he only had nine dollars for the whole night and was torn between buying Rebecca an umbrella and saving money for carnival games. Milo Ventimiglia is great at modulating his performance to believably play this younger, less confident version of Jack. And he and Mandy Moore continue to have off-the-charts chemistry, even when enacting the beats of an awkward first date. It’s just the over-plotting that gets in the episode’s way. This Is Us is often at its strongest when it subverts expectations, but that only works when it’s rooting those subversions in character or theme, not just random surprises, like a handsome man showing up on Rebecca’s doorstep with flowers.
A much better example of the show subverting expectations is with Kevin and Beth. Beth goes into immediate Mama Bear mode when she discovers that her cousin and her brother-in-law are hooking up. Given Kevin’s messy romantic track record and Beth’s sisterly affection for Zoe, we’re immediately primed to think Beth is trying to protect Zoe from getting her heart broken by Kevin. But it turns out it’s actually the other way around. Zoe is apparently even more of a heartbreaker than Kevin, and Beth is worried he’ll be the one destroyed by the relationship. Kevin has really embedded himself into Randall’s family over the past few years and the show takes great advantage of that in fleshing out Kevin and Beth’s relationship. She’s right that he’s a wonderful uncle to Tess and Annie, and that there’s a certain affability and kindness to him even in his worst moments. I always love when This Is Us shakes up its usual character pairings and tonight’s Kevin/Beth dynamic is a great example of that.
The whole episode is loosely anchored around the Steelers’ famous 1972 “Immaculate Reception,” in which fullback Franco Harris scored a miraculous last-minute game-winning touchdown. It’s all meant to be a metaphor for the unexpected twists and turns on the bumpy road of life (and/or a metaphor for Rebecca being a football Jack needs to steal from another man?). But the simpler theme of this episode is just “new beginnings.” That’s what Rebecca and Jack have on their first date, what Kevin potentially has with Zoe, and what Toby and Kate are hoping for as they set out on the journey to have a baby. It’s also what Deja finally realizes she wants as well, as she makes peace with the idea of joining a new family.
Deja’s trip to see her biological father pretty much comes out of nowhere, but it at least gives her a strong character beat to play and offers a nice conclusion to her recent emotional arc. Deja can see right through Randall’s cheesy, somewhat misguided attempts to bring her into his family with a big speech about his own life story. But the fact that he made the gesture at all—even if it failed—is proof that he really does want Deja to be a Pearson. That Deja can appreciate that without fully giving over to Randall’s most sentimental qualities is a nice way to keep her prickly, world-weary characterization, while still demonstrating her warmth and openheartedness as well. I’m glad the show isn’t pretending Deja’s adoption journey would all be smooth sailing, but this also feels like a natural place in which to pivot her story a bit.
Deja’s storyline is probably the best-written element of “Nine Bucks,” but even that doesn’t represent This Is Us at its strongest. All things considered, this premiere feels a bit like This Is Us on autopilot. The episode doesn’t introduce a whole lot of new ideas, it mainly just confirms things we already knew or ever so slightly complicates stories we’re still mostly familiar with. The show’s baseline quality is strong enough that this episode is still perfectly enjoyable to watch. But given the heights the show managed to reach in its second season, I’m hoping This Is Us doesn’t stay on cruise control for too long.
- “Her?” Watch: In place of last year’s Jack Death Watch, I’ll now be keeping track of all the clues about what’s going on in the flashforwards and who might be the mysterious “her” that Randall and Tess keep referring to. Last season, I was pretty convinced the show wanted us to think it was Beth, which it still might be. (For what it’s worth, the show’s creators have promised that Beth isn’t dying.) I’ve also seen Deja, Rebecca, and even Annie floated as possibilities. Of course, the shot of a seemingly single Future Toby being invited to join the visit also puts Kate firmly in play as well. As are pretty much all of the show’s female characters. Zoe? Shauna? Madison?!? Please let it be Madison.
- For those who like digging into marketing and branding: This Is Us has changed the emoji at the end of its Twitter hashtag from a box of tissues to a lemon—a reference to Dr. K’s “make lemonade out of lemons” speech from the pilot. That could indicate that This Is Us might be ever so slightly trying to move away from its reputation as TV’s biggest tearjerker.
- The most romantic part of this whole episode was Jack asking, “May I?” after Rebecca indicated she wanted him to get the candy apple piece off her face. Checking in about boundaries is sexy!
- The other big reveal in this episode is that Toby decides to go off his antidepressants in order to increase his sperm count and avoid putting Kate through the stress of IVF. We’ve already seen from the montage at the end of last season that he’s in for a difficult mental health journey.
- Beth and Randall have so many great little moments in this episode. My favorites were Beth admitting she made a donation to Oprah’s foundation, and Randall’s immediate excitement when Deja pulled a present out of her backpack.