THIS IS US: SEASON 2, EPISODE 5: BROTHERS
You just, you feel too much, and I…I try not to feel anything at all. – Kevin Pearson
For the first time, with last week encroaching in this direction, tonight’s This Is Us started feeling awfully cliched and overdone. Because of its imperfections, it’s still undeniably addictive on a human level, but both the Kevin and Jack’s dad storylines both combined to leave me rolling my eyes as opposed to wiping tears from them. The latter is the goal. The former is the one to avoid.
Kevin Pearson becoming a Vicodin addict was predictable from the first moment we saw a pill bottle earlier this year, but it’s so cliche that it’s unnatural. One problem with This Is Us is that in an attempt to be continually dramatic, “something” has to be happening at all times. What we never get with this show, and it’s here someone like David Simon (The Wire, Treme, The Deuce) has a leg up on most of his showrunning colleagues, is a chance at lasting exhalation and contemplation.
What The Wire did best was display slices of life, where it appeared as if someone simply turned on a camera and pointed it at the inner city. What Treme did best was allow the build to the Katrina fall occur naturally, with a few exceptions in plotlines that generally fell apart due in large part to their artificiality. Those subjects are meatier than an extended family and its various neuroses, but This Is Us need look no further than two Jason Katims efforts, namely Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, for examples of the always applicable less is more philosophy.
People that have never watched FNL assume it’s basically an afternoon special for kids. I’ve had people lodge this critique to me, not understanding that their closed-mindedness kept them from simple joy. Often in life, the complex isn’t always the best. We think we want the four hour epic, but what we really want is the juicy two hour effort with focus and precision.
There’s an old philosophy, forgive me for not knowing its origin, that if someone tries to do one thing, it’s usually done well. If that same person tries to do two or three things, he or she does ONE of them well. And, if that individual attempts seven things, he or she likely does none of them well. I don’t know who said it, but my pastor actually related it to me last week in a sit down discussion. I think it’s incredibly wise.
Tonight, This Is Us went with its usual tenet of trying to do several things, and in effect accomplished nothing new. Season 2 hasn’t had the punch of its predecessor, but it hasn’t been a disaster. However, if the writers don’t recognize that they need to slow down and specialize, they could be in danger of, in the words of Ryan Adams (apropos to Mandy Moore), “burning out hard and bright.”
Kevin is already a full blown painkiller addict, falling back on a newfound alcohol dependency to get him through when the doctors fail to deliver new prescriptions. It’s happened in record time, and the only thing that’s been good about it is the initial cause. Kevin was stressed after an injury he felt could derail his career at its apex, and he made the wrong choice.
Ask yourself why that cause works so well in your own head as I just described it. It’s because I laid it out in one easy to read sentence that brought a concrete idea. It was simple, and even though his desire was innocuous, if not paranoid, he relied on the wrong thing. He didn’t go to his brother or sister, much less to God (if he believes). His impatience and self-absorption led him to the worst possible decision, and one that will likely cost him Sophie and the near future of his soul.
The problem is that he’s already staring down a pill bottle and we’re just five weeks into a long season of This Is Us. If the escalation were gradual, increasing in intensity and leading to first small, then larger concerns, that would play properly. Instead, we’re on a high speed rail to Kevin’s dark place, and I’m having a hard time buying it with the level of emotion the show asks. It feels like a television show, not something I can wrap my heart around.
Elsewhere, Kate fears anything good in her life, because she doesn’t trust it. She doesn’t initially allow Toby to be excited at the news of her pregnancy, as she’s just sure it’s going to go wrong. As she puts it, “bad things happen to me.” Again, this elicited an eye roll, because even in the miracle of her situation, she can’t get out of her own way.
When she and Madison have their verbal altercation first in the meeting and then in the parking lot, I wrote in my notes that they would end up friends. I had no idea there would be an embrace and a genuine moment after the fender bender a few seconds later. But, if This Is us is going to be predictable, it needs to be authentic. This felt MORE authentic than Kevin and the meds, but proved the inherent victim complex Kate wants to live inside, whether she knows it or not. It was also extremely “TV” in execution.
Toby’s reaction to good news showcased yet again how in love he is with his fiancé, and although some critics despise that character, it’s easier to both empathize and sympathize with him than most people he shares scenes with on the show. He was in childlike wonder, which culminated in a celebratory Gatorade-like bath in the nameless establishment in which Kate allowed him to share the info. He can be irritating, but tonight I thought he was on point, and as usual, Chris Sullivan’s performance was strong.
The camping trip at Willow Creek was fine, but all it did was reinforce that young Randall and young Kevin are still struggling to get along, mainly because Kevin doesn’t care and is oblivious to all but his Game Boy, and Randall tries entirely too hard at nearly everything in his life. Apply that description to the episode quote I chose for this review. In past and present, neither has strayed too far from his younger self.
I don’t have a tremendous amount to say about Jack’s dad and that portion of the episode. Rebecca telling his father what a wonderful man he was worked well, and we never got any redemption between the two. We also never saw the hint of a smile from dear old dad, who apparently was just as miserable on his death bed as he was when he left his two sons in a car on a fishing trip.
Yes, Jack has a brother, which served as the episode’s *gasp* conclusion, but this one didn’t pack nearly as powerful a punch as many that have preceded it. I’m sure we’ll now meet this individual in a larger context, and that will bring a completely new angle, but we’ve already got Deja and we’re still making that work. The scene in the ladies room was exceptional, however, and gave both actors a highlight moment for the episode.
Again, This Is Us felt it had to bring something, rather than nurturing and crafting the aerodynamics of less. Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad rewarded patience and faith in the storytelling, and This Is Us is conditioning its audience to expect the erection of skyscrapers every week. Eventually, the architects catch a virus and it takes them longer to get the job done.
There were things to like tonight, but I’m concerned at our pacing and our unwillingness to let anything breathe on this show. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Pearson family doesn’t need to be the source of 800 secrets in a season and a half. I want to see the writers evolve from the constant twist to the good script that values minimalism over all else. If the words are good, the show will be great.
This week, the words were average, and the show lacked emotional power as a direct consequence of a reliance on the wrong tactic.
The script tonight was the equivalent of Kevin choosing the depth of the bottle…over actual, real depth.
I’m @JMartOutkick. If I think you’re being annoying, try talking about Karate Kid.