With everything revealed about Jack’s demise, This Is Us‘ third outing wobbles slightly in reframing the purpose of their flashbacks, as well as slightly overestimating the audience’s continued interest in Jack’s character
Starring Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan, Jon Huertas, Melanie Liburd, Niles Fitch, Logan Shroyer, Hannah Zeile, Mackenzie Hancsicsak, Parker Bates, Lonnie Chavis, Eris Baker, Faithe Herman, and Lyric Ross
It was, perhaps, slightly inevitable that This Is Us would stumble eventually. After two spectacular seasons relentlessly torturing the tear ducts of the world with the heartbreaking multi-generational tale of the Pearson family, and with the particulars surrounding patriarch Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death out of the way, viewers would be forgiven for wondering where the show can go from here. The show, up until this point, has almost been defined by this calamitous tragedy that has informed the lives of survivors Rebecca (Mandy Moore), Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), and the showrunners almost seem as uncertain as the audience as to what should replace this beating heart of the show.
Though the writers still use their usual narrative tricks through their cunning use of multiple timelines and slowly unravelling mysteries, audiences are still left intrigued by events both in the past and those yet to come. Unfortunately, the larger part of the past mystery is given far too much screentime considering the introduction of characters who the audience believe to have already died and therefore struggles to be as interesting as caring for Jack in the lead up to his death. Overall, this season feels far more serious and far less fun than the previous outings which, while emotional, nicely balanced the heartbreak with levity.
A huge focus within this season is Vietnam, and Jack’s experiences there. It is a glaring gap in Jack’s history which the audience were aware of, but it is drawn to Kevin’s attention after his war film is released and he becomes curious based upon some photos that he finds. With new girlfriend Zoe (Melanie Liburd), he sets off in search of answers (because it is conceivable that you’d be able to find the exact area in Vietnam that he had been sent to, despite the fact that he never spoke about his experience in war even to Rebecca, and it’s been a decent 40 years or so since).
As it turns out, Kevin gets answers aplenty, which mainly serve to lead him down a dark path and relapse into his alcoholism. The flashbacks themselves in Vietnam, while marginally interesting, just didn’t warrant the sheer amount of screentime that the audience was subjected to.
Having waited almost two full seasons for the tragedy behind Jack’s death to be unfurled, it felt as though the audience had already mourned Jack. Aside from knowing that he was dead the whole time, seeing the actual event was far more visceral and it felt like a chapter had been closed. Though it’s still interesting to dive back into Jack’s issues and paint him as something other than a perfect father figure – for he simply was not – it still feels too fresh. It feels like the audience aren’t allowed to sit in the permanence of that absence before being thrust back into another story about his past. While it’s natural that Kevin is curious, and it made sense for this curiosity to be piqued from the release of his film, it still felt too soon for the audience to be invested in the plotline. Perhaps if it had been later down the line, a few seasons after Jack’s death, then it would have been more gripping and less irritating. Ultimately, it’s clear that the writers wanted to use Milo Ventimiglia and, despite the audience’s fondness for Jack, he really has no place within the narrative where it doesn’t impact upon the current, living members of his family.
In the present storyline, a massive amount of time is invested into the question of whether formerly brilliant marital pairing Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) would survive the season. With Randall deciding to go back to work, and Beth suddenly finding herself unemployed and struggling with her role as stay-at-home mum to Tess (Eris Baker), Annie (Faithe Herman) and newly adopted Deja (Lyric Ross), serious cracks form in their previously impenetrable united front.
The trouble is that perhaps the writers underestimate the sheer charisma and likability that is Watson’s performance as Beth that even golden child Randall cannot win against her, and just spends the vast majority of the season showing the audience his absolute worst: his pigheadedness, his arrogance, his superiority, his intransigence, and, in this case, how, for all of his brilliant, romantic speeches about family and love, he simply cannot deliver when it stands in the way of what he wants.
Having said that, the two-hander scenes between Watson and Brown do stand out as spectacular, emotional and heartbreaking moments in the season as a whole, as Beth’s previously unflappable demeanour breaks down and reveals some harsh, irretractable truths about the pair’s relationship and their ability to compromise.
Elsewhere, Kate and Toby (Chris Sullivan) desperately try to conceive after Kate’s miscarriage in the previous season, resorting to IVF despite the low chances of success. An additional strain is placed upon their relationship by Toby coming off his antidepressants to increase his fertility. Even once their fertility journey takes off, it’s far from an easy ride and Kate’s pregnancy is set with dramatic obstacles.
Rebecca is given comparatively little to do this season: mostly existing to serve the other characters’ storylines, and spends most of the past struggling to parent her three children amongst her own grief. The finale rightly focuses upon Rebecca’s irreplaceable role in the family, however, using the flashbacks effectively to highlight the other characters;’ massive dependence on her.
The flashbacks and, now, flashforwards are still used effectively within the show to create intrigue and to draw similarities between the past events and the present, though the show could afford to rely less upon Milo Ventimiglia in the past, especially when it involves creating new plotlines that aren’t entirely necessary and don’t substantially affect the present-day action.
Ultimately, This Is Us still packs a powerful punch but it feels much harder going when every character is going through difficult times all at once. This season doesn’t balance the light and the shade well and it feels far more depressing than the previous two did. While struggling in the aftermath of Jack’s demise, the show needs to realise that its true appeal comes from the connection between the present day characters and how the past has shaped them, instead of trying to create sensation and mystery out of buried history.
This Is Us is available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime Video