For @KiraJW, This is Us has built upon the success of their freshman season and is still bringing beautiful, authentic drama. A MUSTWATCH series!
Last season, I was one of millions to be swept up in the tsunami of family feels of last season’s breakout hit, This Is Us, on NBC. The dramedy—starring Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, Emmy nominees Milo Ventimiglia, Chrissy Metz and Mandy Moore, and Justin Hartley—centers on two generations of a loving and deliciously functional Pittsburgh family. My only complaint about the first season is it was too manipulative. Somewhere between one of Randall’s co-workers attempting suicide at a Christmas party, Toby’s heart attack and Kevin’s love rhombus, I began to feel the writers heavy-handed tugging of my heartstrings from my living room.
Consequently, I feared that This Is Us would cannonball into their sophomore slump. This is when the second season of a hit TV show aims to be bigger and better and fails in capturing the magic of the original season. See Lifetime’s UnReal for an example, or maybe don’t (The second season of another Milo Ventimiglia show, Heroes, is textbook example, too). This Lifetime drama explores the very real behind-the-scenes drama of a dating really competition show. The first season was irreverent, bawdy and all kinds of brilliant. It even netted star Constance Zimmer an Emmy nomination.
However, the second season, in which the show dared to go where The Bachelor wouldn’t by casting a black suitor, veered into the predictably problematic and racist by forcing the storyline into an ill-conceived police brutality incident only to stoke pain for the white female lead.
While this is an extreme example (and probably directly related to the change in showrunners), it also illustrates just how dangerous the sophomore slump can be: after that horrific storyline, I never watched the show again.
Fortunately, This Is Us has surprised even this avid viewer. Instead of trying to top last year’s success, it’s learned from the mistakes it made during its first season, and the show is now telling smaller stories in a more organic way. No violent heartstring yanking detected.
For example, adoption storylines are usually rife with clichés and plotholes: the teenager is grumpy, bratty and sullen, but that’s icy veneer is thawed by a few kind gestures, and by the second episode, they are a happy family unit.
Randall (Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi-Watson) are fostering a girl who has endured a short lifetime of trauma and often express how overwhelming it is and how they have no idea what they are doing. It not only gives more originality, it’s also awesome to see televisions No. 1 Relationship Goals couple struggling.
“Still There” finds Randall confessing to his foster daughter Déjà that he has had nervous breakdowns. The speech featured all of the trademark This is Us brilliance—raw emotion wonderfully packaged in a real world situation and deployed by a fantastic actor. It was the perfect set-up to crack through Déjà’s distrust towards her foster family, anger at her at her mother for getting into such serious legal trouble and uprooted her life again. I was already salivating at the image of Randall and Déjà running together through the neighborhood, maybe with the ghost of his late father, William, watching fondly.
Instead, Déjà was enraged that Beth told Randall about a special moment they shared and she shut him out, feeling rightfully betrayed. It was a messy moment, composed with a deft hand that showed an immense amount of growth and restraint on the part of the writers. It was a great way to illustrate just how traumatized this poor child is.
Furthermore, this season has been more focused on the golden thread that ties families, and generations, together. “Déjà Vu” finds a teenaged Randall trying to find his birth parents, and confessing to his students about the isolation he suffers as being adopted. In the present, a grown Randall cites his own familial upbringing as an overwhelming positive and a way to connect with his foster daughter. “My whole childhood I felt split inside. There are these people that I lived with and then there were my birth-parents that I had never met but I thought about them all the time. Here’s the thing my life turned out pretty great…I’ve got this big amazing extended family. I’ve got this big amazing beautiful life. If I’m seeing me in you, if seeing you is giving me that sweet, sweet déjà vu feeling, I think that means it’s going to happen for you too.” This monologue that doesn’t feel overwrought as some of the more self-indulgent ones in the freshman season. It shows how much Randall has matured, and how time and meeting William has greatly changed how he perceives his childhood.
What’s even more satisfying is that Jack Pearson, the man revered as the hero and leader of the Pearson family who came from nothing and sacrificed all to win the girl out of his league and support his triplets, is no longer being portrayed as a the gold standard for fatherhood or an honest-to-goodness Prince Charming. He’s a wonderful man with anvilous baggage, thanks to a childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father and the trauma of Vietnam and SPOILER ALERT!—a little brother!?!
He is a product of his generation, when men brought home the bacon and were never allowed the space to show real, visceral emotion beyond anger. While the first season touched on his jealousy, risk-taking and alcoholism, which he seemed to magically overcome. The second is delving into the ugly realities of his addiction and root of the disease. In the season 2 premiere Rebecca went to Miguel’s house to collect her husband, and Jack confesses: “I’m drunk right now. I’ve been drunk for weeks.” The revelation that Jack is a functional alcoholic actually gives me goosebumps and hints at the difficult recovery ahead.
Future episodes find Jack pounding out his demons on a punching bag instead of going to AA during his first time getting sober. Later, he walks the steps and struggles revisit the pain he had to drag with him through the dark and light times in his life, and he’s not sure how to do it. It’s an admirably candid confession from Jack, the man who usually knows exactly what to say or do.
And his demons are stirring within his own son, who, 20 years later, is haunted by inexpressible grief and memories of his father while filming scenes with Jack’s favorite actor, Sylvester Stallone. After fighting with Kevin, Kate looks to the urn of her father, and tosses out, “he’s just like you.” Kevin, hobbling on his injured knee, pops a pain pill–another chilling revelation.
I am stunned that the writers found a beautiful balance between the gasp-worthy reveals, authentic drama and the small details that make a storyline that much more real. Not every episode needs to incite an ugly-cry, but if done right, it just might. I’m not sure where season 2 is going, especially with Kate’s high-risk pregnancy, Randall and Beth’s fostering, Kevin’s burgeoning addiction, and Jack’s death—but I know it will be an awesome uphill climb.
Kira is a Project Manager for a software development company by day and a fangirl always. She has channeled her passion into Small Screen Girl, a website for all pop culture addicts who never plan on seeking treatment. When Kira isn’t watching or writing about about her favorite actors, shows and movies, she’s probably tweeting about it @KiraJW.