[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “This Is Us” Season 5, Episode 1 and Episode 2, “Forty.”]
Sometimes the simplest sentiments carry the greatest impact. In the Season 5 premiere of “This Is Us” — a dense two hours of pre-planned drama adjusted to include two of 2020’s worst tragedies — six words carry more relatable depth than the thousands around them.
“I’m just really, really, really sad.”
I mean, 2020 right? It’s no surprise such a choice remark comes from Randall Pearson, the long-reigning MVP of “This Is Us” so beautifully embodied by Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. But it is a bit of a surprise how effortlessly his admission cuts through the many, many issues Randall’s tasked with in the season premiere. Both episodes run virtually all their storylines through Randall, and it’s amazing how well both the character and performer are able to distill them into an affecting encapsulation of our collective 2020 mood. We are sad, some of us more than others, and “This Is Us” distinguishes why quite well.
That is, until the series reverts to its old self. Written by creator Dan Fogelman as well as Kay Oyegun and Jake Schnesel, these opening episodes go out of their way to address the COVID-infected elephant in the room and even depict Randall’s honest, restrained reckoning with police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “Forty” Parts 1 and 2 could even serve as a solid benchmark for the many other series aiming to incorporate world-shaking realities into their ongoing stories. But in its final minutes, “This Is Us” fails the biggest test tied to such ambitions. The balance between the fictional, heartwarming drama fans know and the cold, uncertain present we’re all trying to escape goes awkwardly askew, and “Twist Is Us” emerges for an eye-rolling ending that undermines its own accomplishments.
Let’s start with what worked. Throughout the two-part Season 5 premiere, Randall isn’t himself. Why? Well, pick a reason: Not long ago (in the Season 4 finale), Kevin (Justin Hartley) told him that “the worst thing that ever happened to me” was when the Pearson family adopted Randall. Even from an alcoholic brother who’s picked on Randall most of his life, that’s a low blow.
Justin Hartley in “This Is Us”
Randall tells all this to his therapist, Dr. Leigh (Pamela Adlon), but there’s more: He’s also dealing with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a city councilmen in Philadelphia, Randall has to make difficult decisions about where to put his dwindling budget and which employees to furlough. Meanwhile, his wife’s dance studio is “hemorrhaging cash,” while Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and the family shelter in place.
All of this is conveyed via a time-warping montage. For a few minutes, director Ken Olin bottles up the frantic, frightening pace of life in 2020, dropping new developments on top of one another at an aptly rapid rate. The pandemic escalates from Kevin calling COVID “the virus thing” to telling Kate (Chrissy Metz) he knocked up her best friend while standing six feet away, outdoors, mask in hand.
The capper, though, that transitions “This Is Us” out of its 10-minute montage covering multiple months and into its present-day drama, is Randall getting a news alert about Floyd’s murder. That’s the event that sticks in Randall’s consciousness and starts to affect his day-to-day behavior enough that even his new best friend / daughter’s boyfriend Malik (Asante Black) notices something’s wrong. (Their heart-to-heart was a nice moment for both actors, even if I don’t buy for one second that Randall would let anyone into his house during COVID.)
Given Randall’s history with panic attacks, it would have been easy for “This Is Us” to push him over the edge, escalating the melodrama to “Memphis”-level amounts of weeping. Instead, Fogelman, Oyegun, and Schnesel go the other way, downplaying Randall’s internal crisis in order to magnify the national crisis. Randall’s storyline emphasizes the exhaustion felt by Black Americans as they try to explain racism, encourage resistance, and even appreciate white allies’ showy signs of support. Kate and Toby sending Randall a text about their baby’s first protest is painfully on point, and it only takes a shared look between Brown and Watson to convey their complicated frustrations.
“This Is Us” recognizes how well-versed its audience is in a lot of these points (from mask etiquette to anti-racism) and wisely refrains from over-explaining them again. In moments like the Pearson family watching TV together, the episodes reflect the unique complexities of 2020, and even when Randall has to give a big speech to his sister about what he’s going through, it rings true. “This feels different,” Kate says, explaining why she’s constantly checking in on her Black brother. “Not to me, Kate,” Randall replies before adding that they never talked about police brutality and systemic racism until now. “Growing up, I just had to keep so many things to myself because I didn’t want to make you guys feel bad. I didn’t want you to have to worry about saying the wrong thing.”
“I hate this, Kate. I hate seeing you upset. Normally I would hug you […] I would try to make it all OK for you […] but if I make things better for you, where does that leave me?”
This dialogue deftly combines the distancing effects forced on families by COVID with the difficult conversations many have been forced to have because of the protests. It works not only because Brown is terrific, but because it refuses to provide an easy resolution. (That being said, having Kevin come running outside right after for another emotional chat with Randall feels like a forced parade of siblings — as if the Kate convo was added in to keep the show current, and they couldn’t figure out another time for Kevin and Randall’s talk.)
Eris Baker, Faithe Herman, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Sterling K. Brown in “This Is Us”
Unfortunately, “This Is Us” gives in to the easy ending eventually. After Randall returns home and tells Beth he’s not going to have a breakdown, that he’s just really, really, really sad, she delivers the speech needed to tie all of the episodes’ disparate storylines together. “Baby, you were born out of tragedy. Multiple tragedies,” Beth says, referencing the episodes’ flashback plots: how his birth father abandoned him at a fire station, how his birth mother died, and how the Pearsons only adopted him because their third baby didn’t survive the birth. “All that loss, all that sadness, and look what you hung on your fenceposts,” Beth says, nodding to his daughters.
“Do you see it?” she asks.
“I see it,” Randall says.
That’s a graceful ending, except the episode doesn’t end there. Beth goes on to say: “You are a beautiful, resilient man. The world is a beautiful, resilient place,” and that’s when the wheels start to come off.
First of all, the world as seen through the lens of 2020 is anything but beautiful, and everything in the episode prior to this moment has been built around the idea that Black Americans have been abused for the entirety of Randall’s life; that racism is systemic and that this moment doesn’t feel different to Randall — and that’s the point. Even if the reasons to “fight on” are as evident as they are pressing, there’s no reason to believe change is imminent.
Worse yet, “This Is Us” presses on to reveal yet another ending, and this one comes with a twist! Randall’s mother didn’t die after all. The paramedics managed to revive her after William (Jermel Nakia) fled with Baby Randall, which sets up Season 5 to focus on Adult Randall finding out his mom is… still alive? Lest we forget, Season 1 revolved around Randall finding his father, so forgive me if this all feels a little too convenient (and familiar). Twists are part of the series’ DNA — and part of what keeps viewers watching weekly — but this one feels like a real reach, in addition to undermining the authentic work that comes before.
It’s OK to be sad. It’s good, even, to recognize sadness and grow from it. Randall seems destined to do just that, even if his self-absorbed siblings do not. (Kate pivoted so hard from “I need to sit with these feelings” to “Ooo, a new baby!” there’s no way she survives the whiplash, and Kevin didn’t once mention the world’s woes.) But expecting a broadcast drama aimed at the masses to end on its stars accepting sorrow may be too big of an ask. Maybe it’s enough that “This Is Us” found a genuine and productive way to engage with COVID and police brutality without becoming too preachy, too saccharine, or too distanced from its core self. Other dramas trying to bring in similar topics to ongoing plots might count themselves lucky to deliver an equivalent impact.
Sometimes the simplest moments are the strongest. In a dramatically overloaded premiere, “This Is Us” earns plenty of credit for finding that moment, even if it can’t sit with it as long as it should.
“This Is Us” airs new episodes Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.
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