This Is Us is back and mama’s got on her crying pants. By which of course I mean a giant Ebenezer Scrooge–style nightgown built to catch all of my tears. Turns out I don’t need such a contraption because This Is Us isn’t interested in eliciting my tears this week. No, it’s more interested in “expanding the TIU universe” and “introducing new characters” and “attempting to tell a meaningful story in an interesting way by sidelining our favorite characters.” All of that is a darn shame, because I really need my weekly cathartic cry and this is just not doing it for me.
It’s not like This Is Us didn’t warn us. For weeks now, the trailer has promised a season full of unfamiliar faces. It’s a confusing tactic and even the trailer, set to Mandy Moore’s Rebecca ruminating on how strange it is that “a complete stranger can become such a big part of your life,” had me wondering if instead of a season four we were about to get some House reboot. Alas, Omar Epps and Jennifer Morrison do not share the screen …yet. It’s possible they will in the future because both of them are playing characters who are in the Pearson family’s orbit.
It’s a risky move to devote 75 percent of your premiere episode to characters we’ve never met before — don’t worry kids, Mom and Dad get a storyline tonight — and it’ll be interesting to revisit this episode at the end of the season. Who knows, maybe by the time this whole series ends the people we met tonight will be so entwined with the Pearson clan, their introductions will be rendered incredibly moving. For now, it sort of feels like This Is Us is showing off some new tricks. I have to admit that I thought the show would string us along for several episodes before revealing how these people were tied into the main story, but good on This Is Us — by the end of “Strangers” we know how they’re initially connected. I’m sure not everything is as straightforward as it seems, and there will be some twists along the way, because dear lord there’s nothing This Is Us loves more than to parse out information and then toss in a big twist that is emotionally manipulative and set to sad music. I mean that as a compliment? I think? I mean, I’m still here for Pearson shenanigans after all these years, and so are you.
Well, should we meet the newbies? Let’s start with Cassidy Sharp (Morrison), currently the most depressing of the new characters, which means she’ll fit in great here. Cassidy is a marine deployed in the Middle East with a husband, Ryan (Nick Wechsler — and as a person who watched Roswell and tolerated Revenge solely for the Emily-Jack romance, can we get this dude a lead role on a show already?), and young son, Matty, waiting for her at home. We see a little of her life during deployment, and even then, she is not in a great way. Once she’s home, things get even worse: She can’t get a job, she’s drinking A LOT, her marriage is basically nonexistent, and one day while completely out of it and frustrated, she ends up hitting her son. In short, the woman has PTSD.
And so she ends up seeking help at the local VA. In a group-therapy session, she opens up about the fact that she’s stopped feeling anything since being home and the guilt she feels for hitting her son. It’s all very moving (Morrison is great, no?) … until a chair comes crashing through the window, thrown by a very drunk old vet walking around. That drunk old vet is Nicky Pearson.
Back in Los Angeles, Kevin gets a phone call telling him that his uncle has been arrested and gave the police his number for bail money. And just like that, Kevin Pearson is booking a flight to Pittsburgh that will put him right in the path of Cassidy Sharp.
We also meet Malik (Asante Blackk), a teenager in Philadelphia with an infant daughter. We meet his parents, played by Omar Epps and Marsha Stephanie Blake, who are helping to raise their granddaughter while also doing very cute things like flirting over breakfast and generally giving Randall and Beth a run for Best Married Couple — don’t tell them I said that. Malik is grappling with being both a parent and a teenager. He works for his father, Darnell, at his body shop but also entertains the idea of getting into some very shady business in order to make money to support his daughter. Darnell catches wind of what Malik’s getting into and has a heart-to-heart with his son. Darnell almost went down a dark path, but when Malik’s mother wound up pregnant, it put Darnell on the straight and narrow … and the straight and narrow isn’t such a bad place to be. He also wants his son to know that his life isn’t over because he has a baby, and even offers to babysit so that Malik can go to his friend’s end-of-summer barbecue. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s at this party that Malik is introduced to the new girl in town. Her name is Deja.
You guys! Malik and Deja are so flirty and cute over hamburgers, it warms my cold, dead heart. You know what warms it even more? When Deja goes home to her new house and Randall asks, “What’s happening with your face?” She is smiling and she cannot help herself. Deja is in love and she doesn’t care who knows it! I mean, she’ll probably care once Randall knows it, because can you even imagine Randall dealing with his daughters going on dates?
Oh, speaking of a love story, we still have to meet our third new character: Naked Blind Musician. We find this young guy very hungover one morning, cooking breakfast for himself and his dog, Sam. Sam unfortunately breaks the dish the Blind Musician’s food is on, thus ruining breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so the Musician heads over to a diner where he meets a waitress named Lucy. He immediately falls for her and she seems into him and the Musician goes home and writes a new song. We watch their relationship in hyperspeed: They hook up, they hang out with their dog while wearing comfortable clothes, they get engaged (this is the natural progression of relationships, I think). We find them again one evening after they’ve been married and have just opened up a restaurant — Lucy’s dream — and Lucy informs her husband that she’s six weeks pregnant and she is scared. He assures her it’ll all be okay because man, this dude is so insanely in love with his wife and confident that they can tackle anything together and hm, that’s weird, don’t we know someone like that?
Back in the present-day timeline, Kate and Toby are at the doctor’s office and have just learned that despite multiple surgeries, their infant son is blind. Hmm?
And then it’s revealed that the Musician is wildly successful and about to perform to a sold-out stadium and he’s introduced as, that’s right, Jack Damon. Living out his grandmother and mother’s dreams and acting all Jack Pearson-y. Oh, we should add that to the list of things This Is Us loves: parsing out information, emotionally manipulative twists, and bringing things full circle. This show hasn’t met a full circle it doesn’t love!
This parade of new faces is framed by two of our favorite faces: Jack’s and Rebecca’s. And it’s their bright, shiny, young faces, not the “I’m ancient and dying and I will surely suck out your soul” Ancient Rebecca face that haunts my dreams, so that’s nice! No, we find Jack and Rebecca returning from their road trip to Los Angeles where Rebecca’s dreams were crushed, but also she hung out with the love of her life, so it’s a toss up of a vacation, really.
We always knew Jack and Rebecca were INTENSE. All the monologuing they do throughout their marriage alone is insane. But we didn’t fully know the extent to which they were intense from the beginning. Yes, obviously going on a cross country road trip for your third date is intense, but their fourth date is even more so: Jack agrees to have dinner with Rebecca’s parents at! The! Country club! This is possibly the worst decision these two have made as a couple, which you know is really saying something because these are the people who decided to use a defective crockpot for 17 years. WE ALL KNOW HOW THAT ENDED.
This wild fourth date, at the very least, leads us to maybe the cutest meet-cute in the history of the show: Jack needs a sport coat for the dinner and who does he find to help him at the store? The greatest suit salesman in all the land: Miguel Rivas. Guys! This is how Jack and Miguel meet and honestly, I clapped when it happened. When Miguel realizes Jack can’t afford to buy the blazer, he lets him borrow it for a week. Dear, sweet, Miguel, remember how wrong I was about you in the beginning?
Anyway, the dinner is awkward as hell. We already knew Rebecca’s mom Janet was a certain level of she-beast, but her father (welcome, Tim Matheson) is a stealth villain. Jack gets off to a rocky start, but after a quick bathroom break in which he gives himself his own sort of pep talk (very Jack), he comes back to the table and gives an early version of a patented Jack Pearson Speech about how his parents are awful to each other, about losing Nicky, and about how sorry he is that the first impression he made on Rebecca’s parents was him whisking their daughter across the country for two weeks, but that he’ll be able to work on it because he’ll be around for a while. The entire time, you can see Rebecca falling more and more in love with Jack, and that’s cool for them, but honestly, if a dude rolled up to my family’s dinner and gave an intense speech like that, my family would be like “no, no, hard pass here.” That’s more or less what Rebecca’s dad says when he pulls Jack aside after the meal. He’s been more than lovely to Jack’s face, but alone he tells him that he’s damaged goods and he wants more for his daughter — there’s no way this is happening.
We already know who wins this war, but it should nonetheless be fun to watch Jack fight for his relationship with Rebecca. And by fun, obviously I mean emotionally gutting because hi, hello, nothing on this show is fun. All those new characters have been warned!