(Photo: This Is Us/NBC)

And now for something completely different! After weeks of twisty-turny emotional drama, This Is Us offers something lighter this week. There are still twists and turns and potential tear-jerking moments in “Three Sentences”—this is still This Is Us after all—but this is about as close to a full-on comedic episode as this show is likely to get. No one winds up in the hospital, and no one faces a sudden life crisis, which allows the episode’s emotional weight to simmer in the background rather than being thrown in the audience’s face. And that makes for a nice change of pace. One of the best things about This Is Us is its insanely likable cast, and “Three Sentences” mostly just lets them hang out with one another in low-stakes but meaningful situations.

It’s easy to mistake conflict for good writing, which is why dramas so often fall into the trap of having people constantly arguing with one another. But while conflict is necessary for storytelling (unless you only want to tell insanely boring stories), it can be equally engaging to watch people get along, too. That’s why Randall and Beth are one of the most enjoyable pairings on this show; they support each other rather than just butting heads, like so many TV married couples do. “Three Sentences” basically takes that easy-going philosophy and applies it to the rest of its character pairings, too.

That’s especially nice for Jack and Rebecca, who are more collaborative tonight than we’ve ever seen them before. Although This Is Us is quick to remind its audience that Jack and Rebecca have a loving, stable relationship, the show tends to focus on the moments in which they disagree: over whether or not to have kids, how to handle the fact that they’re having triplets, where to send Randall to school, how to deal with Jack’s drinking issues, etc. But in “Three Sentences,” they’re almost entirely on the same page. There’s a little back-and-forth over whether or not they should have another baby (which isn’t too much of a mystery given that we know there’s not a fourth Pearson kid running around in the present day), but for the most part they’re a solid team working together to plan not one but three birthday parties.

Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia have done a great job creating an easy, lived-in chemistry to Jack and Rebecca’s relationship, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them navigate three simultaneous parties themed around The Princess Bride, Madonna, and magic. When problems arise, like the low attendance rate of Randall’s party, Jack and Rebecca tackle them as a team, rather than arguing over what to do. Even the decision not to have another kid is one they come to mutually. Having three soon-to-be preteens is enough to deal with, even if they’re both nostalgic for the days when their kids were more easily cheered up by speeches and less likely to know the correct word for hiccups.

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If I had to put my finger on the overall theme of “Three Sentences” it would be the passage of time. Jack and Rebecca are scared that time is rushing by too quickly. All of a sudden their adorable 1-year-old babies are celebrating their 10th birthdays. Meanwhile, Randall is trying to take advantage of every moment he has left with his ailing father, even when it means potentially giving up a huge opportunity at work. Randall and William’s day of fun is a truly lovely runner throughout this episode, and it also benefits from being more low-stakes and amiable. I kept waiting for Randall to have an angry outburst about William pulling him away from the office for the day, but instead their story ends with a sweet moment in which Randall helps his father cross a dream off his bucket list. He helps William drive a cool car while listening to his favorite song, drinking an egg cream, and rocking a pair of sunglasses. Rather than go maudlin, This Is Us sticks to charming, and that makes the father/son parking lot ride all the more moving.

Kate’s story is the one that feels the least tied to the rest of the episode, though it’s also somewhat linked to the idea of time and how the events in her childhood shaped her (which, to be fair, is basically just the premise of the show). I think the problem with Kate’s story is that the writers and the audience are at odds with how it’s being perceived. In giving Kate a love interest and a slightly sardonic edge, I think the writers thought they were subverting tropes about larger women on television. But because Kate’s storylines are so singularly tied to weight, she still winds up feeling one-dimensional despite those details.

Even days after getting engaged to a man who just suffered a major medical crisis, Kate’s focus is right back on her weight. She talks herself out of having gastric bypass surgery and instead decides to attend an “immersive weight loss experience,” a.k.a. a “fat camp,” as Kate calls it. Which means that even though Toby’s stuck on the East Coast for two weeks since he can’t fly following his surgery, and Kate theoretically still has a personal assistant job to get back to, she decides to take a month-long trip to the Adirondacks. Thinking she’s headed off for a few weeks of nonstop workouts, Kate discovers she’s actually attending a more touchy-feely program designed to get at the core of its attendees’ issues with weight. And though she scoffs at the program at first, she winds up throwing herself into it by the end of the episode.

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Hands down the best moment in Kate’s story is the one in which she has some sort of emotional breakthrough while drumming in a therapeutic workout class. Chrissy Metz turns in her best performance yet as she portrays the pain and catharsis Kate begins to feel as she flashes back to painful moments in her childhood, including her dad’s funeral. It doesn’t exactly give Kate an extra dimension, but it at least hints that they’re there and that Metz can sell the hell out of them when asked to.

But unfortunately, that potentially interesting storyline is bogged down by a man named Duke (Adam Bartley). Duke is basically an evil universe version of Toby, one who goes for negging rather than grand romantic gestures when trying to woo a woman. This is another moment in which I fear the writers are unaware of how what they’ve written will be perceived. Duke essentially sexually harasses Kate as a flirtation technique, which is even more upsetting when you consider he’s an employee at a camp she’s paying to attend. He should absolutely be fired for repeatedly trying to seduce a woman who’s made it quite clear she’s not interested. But while Kate is put off in the moment, the show seems to be setting up Duke as an attractive bad boy rather than an outright villain. And that’s the problem: It’s fine for the show to depict a character who’s an asshole, but trying to argue his asshole behavior is lovable is where things start to go off the rails. To be fair, I’m not 100 percent sure that’s where the show is heading, but considering that next week’s promo hyped a “love triangle” between Kate, Toby, and Duke, I’m not optimistic either.

While Kate’s story continues to be something of a mixed bag, Kevin’s is suddenly the most engaging it’s ever been thanks to a patented This Is Us twist. It turns out Kevin used to be married to a woman named Sophie, whom he first met back in grade school when she was Kate’s best friend. When Toby advises him to think of the love of his life as a way to settle the Olivia vs. Sloane crisis, Kevin decides he’s actually still in love with Sophie. The only problem is they haven’t spoken in 12 years since they got divorced at age 24. It’s more twisty setup than payoff at this point, but the Sophie reveal has me more interested in Kevin’s storyline than I’ve been in a long time. It leaves a lot to unpack, both about his teenage years and his young adulthood. And it ties the birthday party scenes more firmly into the present day portion of the episode.

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I still want This Is Us to be a little thematically tighter, a little more nuanced in its storytelling, and a little more in-depth with its characterizations. But by switching up its tone, “Three Sentences” proves This Is Us is capable of more than just maudlin melodrama. It can tell warm, low-stakes human stories, too. And that’ll be important to keeping the show running for at least two more seasons.

Stray observations

  • It’s a little weird that every formative event in the Big Three’s life seems to have happened around the age of 9 or 10, right?
  • We get our first blurry glimpse at Jack’s funeral. The kids look to be late teens at the time.
  • Sterling K. Brown has always been the MVP of This Is Us, but tonight Lonnie Chavis (young Randall) proves he’s equally amazing. Clearly Randall is just the best, and I like that Jack and Rebecca all but admit he’s their favorite child.
  • I thought my favorite version of Milo Ventimiglia would always be Jess from Gilmore Girls, but seeing Jack in prime dad mode entertaining a bunch of kids at a party is really giving Mr. Mariano a run for his money.
  • Molly Eichel was gracious enough to let me fill in tonight while she’s out sick. Feel better, Molly!

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