This Is Us, the NBC drama that has become the nation’s official safe space for ugly crying, has pleasantly surprised me this season. And when I say pleasantly surprised, I mean that in the episodes leading up to and including Tuesday’s midseason finale, the show has delved into outright sadder, more emotionally complex story lines. While it still seeks out silver linings, This Is Us also is more willing to admit that sometimes, life is just heavy clouds with nothing silver inside at all. That slight swerve in approach has turned a solid, occasionally too schmaltzy, network series into one that’s inching closer to greatness.
About a year ago, after season one’s midseason finale, I wrote a piece criticizing This Is Us for practicing “comfortable progressiveness,” i.e. diving into difficult, often socially relevant subjects but always with the promise that the audience will eventually land softly in a pool of cotton balls.
This season, This Is Us still fulfills its role as escapist family fare. But it’s also getting more real about certain subjects, including racism. In this week’s “Number Three,” the third in a trilogy of episodes devoted to each Pearson offspring – and, let’s be honest, designed to give Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, and Justin Hartley obvious submissions for Emmy consideration — Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) takes young Randall (Niles Fitch) on a college visit to the historically black Howard University. In the flashback to his campus visit, it’s obvious that Randall lights up at the prospect of being surrounded by African-American peers, while Jack, try as he might, looks a little uncomfortable.
During the drive home, Jack calls out Randall for seeming embarrassed when introducing his father to his new friends. At first Randall deals with the situation by cracking a joke, but then he says, “Dad, you know how you felt at Howard, when you thought I hesitated because you’re white? How you were mad about it but couldn’t say why? I feel like that all the time.” It’s a follow-up of sorts to the conversations about racism between a younger Randall and his parents in this season’s fourth episode, and, in episode seven, between the Pearsons and the judge who expresses reservations about allowing them, a white couple, to adopt a black baby.
The implication of all these interactions is that, no matter what Jack and Rebecca do, there will always be a divide between them and Randall that simply cannot be bridged. Notably, in “Number Three,” it’s Randall — not a judge and not his parents — who explains what racism feels like, with the full knowledge that his dad can never fully see things through his eyes. While that may not seem like a particularly earth-shattering or hard-hitting observation, it’s certainly a much more blunt assessment of the racial divide in this family than This Is Us gave us in season one.
The relationship between Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their foster daughter Deja (Lyric Ross) also comes to a head in this week’s episode in ways that subtly comment on how Randall’s worldview may have been sculpted by his upbringing. When Shauna (Joy Brunson), Deja’s birth mother, gets out of jail and ill-advisedly shows up at the Pearsons to retrieve her daughter, Randall and Beth immediately shift into defensive mode, casting Shauna as a negligent mother who can’t be trusted and vowing to fight for custody of Deja. That has been their attitude toward Shauna this whole season; when she’s still in prison, Randall even tells Shauna that she’ll have to “go through him” to get to her daughter. He says this in the same episode that contains the flashback to Jack and Rebecca’s custody battle with that skeptical judge, and that doesn’t seem like an accident.
Eventually, finally, Randall sees the connections between Deja’s situation and his own estrangement from William, his birth father who, like Shauna, also got mixed up in drugs. It’s remarkable that it takes him so long to see the equivalency there and find some empathy. Then again, perhaps he’s so inclined not to see the full picture because he comes from a middle-class family, now lives in an upper-middle-class one, and is a firm believer that people who make a real effort in life are rewarded. (What is it he keeps telling Deja? “Working hard is what gets you the big house and the fancy car.”)
Jack and Rebecca at least partly instilled those values in him, which are not necessarily white values per se, but certainly a mindset that’s far easier to buy into when you’ve grown up in a decent home and not wanting for a whole lot. In a way, you could say that judge was right; being raised by those particular white parents did affect Randall’s perspective, to the point that it takes him a while to see that there’s actually some overlap between his own life, that of a black man, and the lives of two black women, Shauna and Deja. At Howard, though, he was able to see the overlap immediately, because those students look like him in ways that extend beyond skin color. Intended or not, this is This Is Us commenting on the way economic and racial identity are so deeply, complexly interwoven.
While the members of the Pearson family have certainly dealt with their share of tragedies, in season one, This Is Us tended to cushion most of the blows. It’s been doing a lot less of that in season two, part one, too.
Kevin has not only tumbled deeply into drug and alcohol addiction, he’s done so in a way that has sabotaged his career and alienated the people who love him most. In the most recent episode, his arrest for DUI is a real rock bottom — not to mention cliffhanger —moment. I swear, when I realized Randall’s daughter Tess was in the car, I thought This Is Us might get really real and kill her in a car wreck. But even This Is Us at its roughest isn’t going to go that rough, then leave us there just before taking a holiday-season hiatus.
The show did lean into the truly heartbreaking last week, with the episode focused on Kate’s miscarriage. This is where I feel like I owe This Is Us an apology.
After Kate’s pregnancy was revealed, I wrote a piece referring to that development as “the kind of This Is Us twist that was practically designed in a This Is Us lab to appeal to the core This Is Us constituency.” I also overconfidently predicted all the ways the show would explore the ramifications of the pregnancy, and declared that the baby would inevitably be born during a very special season finale that would probably cause facial tissues to go out of stock at every CVS, Duane Reade, and Walgreens in all 50 states.
I was not just snarky about the whole thing. I was also wrong. As explored in wrenching detail in “Number Two,” Kate (Chrissy Metz) loses the baby that she and Toby (Chris Sutton) had been so eager to welcome into the world only six weeks earlier, in television time. I really, really did not see that coming. I assumed that a show that has become the poster child for comfort-food TV would never go to such a devastating place so quickly. But it did, and showed Kate confronting the loss in ways that rung true — first, she tried to ignore her pain, then go about her business, then escape, and finally turn, reluctantly at first, to her mother for advice.
While the members of the Pearson family have certainly dealt with their share of tragedies, the blow from this particular tragedy, unlike others, wasn’t cushioned at all. True, Toby and Kate decided they would try again to get pregnant, an effort that could enable this story line to end on a more uplifting note in the finale that airs next year. But that doesn’t change the fact that This Is Us did its worst to one of the show’s most well-liked characters, and just let her deal with it. Because that’s what generally happens to women who have miscarriages, and to their partners, fiancés, and spouses: What was a gift turns into a sudden loss, and there’s nothing one can do except figure out how to deal.
With the midseason finale behind us, the big question about the exact circumstances of Jack’s death still hasn’t been fully answered. (We know he died in a fire, but we don’t know how it happened or why he couldn’t get out of the house alive.) Given This Is Us’s increasing interest in showing us the truth without swaddling its honesty in a warm blanket, I expect that when the show does address all that, it’s going to be pretty brutal. It has to be.