Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

The third season premiere of This Is Us felt a little undercooked, and this week’s episode has the opposite problem of feeling way overstuffed. Ostensibly, “A Philadelphia Story” is a Randall-centric episode that examines his life-long identity crisis. As he explains to Beth at Kevin’s movie premiere, he’s always felt torn between worlds and never fully at ease in any. He was a black kid raised in a white family, and now he’s an affluent suburbanite trying to improve an inner city community. Plus he’s got two very different, very impressive deceased fathers he’s trying to live up to, which is a lot for an anxious perfectionist like Randall to handle. Those are definitely strong building blocks for a Randall-centric story, but the problem is that “A Philadelphia Story” never quite feels like a Randall-centric story. Instead, the episode jumps between a whole bunch of major plot threads, including one that tries to give a returning Ron Cephas Jones something meaningful to do. Each of these storylines has its strengths, but there’s a whiplash-inducing quality as the episode tries to cram them all in.

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About half of “A Philadelphia Story” juxtaposes the way Randall and William (returning in his own flashback storyline) each try to make the world a better place. William slowly, patiently works to build meaningful relationships with those in his community, including a recently widowed Nigerian immigrant named Chichi (Yetide Badaki) and her baby daughter Sky. Randall, however, tries to help that same community by throwing his money around, fixing logistical problems, and appealing to local politicians like Councilman Sol Brown (Rob Morgan). It’s not necessarily a bad way to help, and Chichi points out that Randall shares many wonderful qualities with his biological father. But she’s also blunt about the fact that Randall has very different priorities and values than William did. William looked around and saw a community full of potential worth nurturing; Randall looks around and sees a community full of problems to be fixed.

The issue, however, is that the William flashback feels really detached from the Randall stuff, with the only link being Chichi, who we barely know as a character. I’m not even sure how well Randall knows Chichi or how much he knows about her friendship with William. That makes the William storyline feel like a tangent and/or just an excuse to get Ron Cephas Jones back on the show. Randall’s attempts to appeal to Councilman Brown also feel like a tangent that takes up far too much screentime, especially once the councilman starts giving a lengthy monologue about his own father. In an episode predominantly focused on the dueling William and Randall storylines, the Councilman Brown stuff might provide some welcome texture to the show’s world inner city. But because there are so many other things going on in “A Philadelphia Story,” it winds up pulling focus from stuff I’d much rather be watching instead—namely, the episode’s other major past-set storyline.

The single most exciting thing about the third season of This Is Us is that, with the circumstances of Jack’s death now out in the open, the show can finally dig into the time between Jack’s death and the Big Three’s 20s. It’s one of the most—if not the most—defining times in the lives of Rebecca, Randall, Kevin, and Kate, and we know virtually nothing about it. I was riveted every time “The Philadelphia Story” started to reveal details from that era and annoyed every time in cut away. The teenage Big Three storyline is supposed to serve as the third point in this episode’s exploration of Randall, but because it’s so compelling in its own right, it overwhelms everything else rather than complementing it.

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Though Rebecca briefly rallied into a super mom for Jack’s funeral, it turns out she hasn’t been doing so well since. She’s too weighed down by grief to be the active parent she promised her kids she would be. Teenage Randall is mostly doing okay and is ecstatic to receive an early acceptance letter to Howard University, but Kate and Kevin are dealing with their grief in self-destructive ways. Neither of them wants to seriously consider their futures (Kate never even sent in her callback audition tape for Berkeley) and both are self-medicating—Kevin with alcohol and Kate with food. So after confronting Rebecca about her lackluster parenting and learning the extent of her paralyzing grief, Randall makes the heartbreaking decision to delay attending college and stay home to try to fill his dad’s shoes instead. I really can’t emphasize enough how satisfying it is to finally start getting some concrete details on this hitherto unexplored part of This Is Us’ timeline, and I’m looking forward to the show delving into this time period further.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

On paper, I can see the way “A Philadelphia Story” is trying to juxtapose a flashback storyline about teenage Randall trying to become Jack Pearson with a present day storyline about adult Randall trying to become William Hill. But there’s just way too much going on in this episode for that to fully land, especially when “A Philadelphia Story” also features prominent storylines about Toby’s antidepressant withdrawal, and Kate and Rebecca navigating their improved-but-far-from-perfect relationship when they butt heads over Kate’s IVF treatment. “A Philadelphia Story” throws one final Randall-centric twist into the mix too.

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When Randall asks Kevin what he missed while he was in Philly, he learns that a big part of Kate’s desire to have a biological baby is so she can pass on a piece of Jack—something she thinks only she can do (Kevin doesn’t want to have kids). Randall is naturally deeply betrayed by Kate’s thoughtless dismissal of the way he’s passed on Jack’s legacy to his own family, and the episode seems to be setting up a big upcoming Randall/Kate confrontation. That’s a great storytelling choice for the season, not only because it will finally allow Kate to have a major storyline that involves one of her brothers (she’s had virtually none of those so far), but also because it sets up a fascinating discussion of nature, nurture, and family legacies that This Is Us is uniquely suited to hash out. “A Philadelphia Story” may have taken a particularly convoluted road to get there, but at least it ends on a high note.


Stray observations

  • We need to talk about Kevin…’s outfit for his big movie premiere. A partially buttoned, striped V-neck cardigan under a patterned suit? To quote Clueless, “From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess.” If you want to go for this aesthetic, just invest in an actual suit vest, Kevin!

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
  • Do actors usually get to invite their entire extended family to movie premieres?
  • As someone who’s spent her whole life in the Midwest, I definitely didn’t realize that Philly and New Jersey were only about an hour’s drive away from each other.
  • Milo Ventimiglia only makes a few brief appearances in this episode—most prominently in a flashback in which he and Rebecca consider buying a new house just before theirs burns down. His absence would likely land a lot harder if this episode didn’t have so much else going on.
  • Are we supposed to think it’s a parenting mistake for Rebecca to tell Kate not to worry about the fact that she’s gained 25 pounds since Jack died? Because I’m not sure it is?
  • The scene where Rebecca gives Kate her hormone shot was very sweet and a nice endpoint for their episode-long confrontation. I also enjoyed Toby trying to explain away Kate’s IVF treatment by claiming he was a heroin addict.
  • Okay, someone help me figure out what’s going on with the This Is Us timeline. Given that Sky is about 13 or 14 in the present day, the William flashback must be taking place about 12 or 13 years ago when she was just a baby (circa 2005). During that time William is celebrating being five years sober, but didn’t he become sober when that judge scared him straight in “The Most Disappointed Man,” which took place circa 1981? So wouldn’t he be celebrating his 24th year being sober? What am I missing here? I would assume William had just relapsed at some point and was celebrating being five years sober from that point, but I thought “The Most Disappointed Man” drove home the idea that William remained totally sober until he almost used again right before Randall showed up at his door.

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