This Is Us is a stunning show that employs clever story structure and sincerity to elicit some of the most powerful emotions a show has ever rung from its audience.
Director Alfred Hitchcock once said, “film is just life with the boring bits cut out.” This Is Us seems to take that axiom to heart. There is no big plot. There is no high adventure premise. It is simply life.
The show follows the lives of the Pearson family through their trials and tribulations. It’s a very simple and low concept premise. It doesn’t involve the life saving heroics of the doctors or police of most network television series. It has twists, but it earns those and doesn’t try to trick the audience or play big games with the audiences suspension of disbelief. It is simple and true and feels as real as any show can.
The show is honest and sincere. It isn’t cynical. It doesn’t overreach for cleverness or try to play on the audience’s emotions. It certainly tugs on the heartstrings and uses a well placed musical cue to help things along, but the core of its emotional impact is the relationships that it builds and reinforces constantly through the show. These siblings have history and that history informs everything about them to this day. That history is shared in relevant flashbacks to the action of their current lives. The conflicts that they endure today were built from the beginning. It weaves a tapestry of these characters lives that the entire show is able to work within. It enriches every moment.
The three main characters are Randall, played by Sterling K. Brown. He is a fiercely intelligent man who struggles with his identity and strives for perfection in all things. He was adopted by the Pearsons and discovers his birth father in the first episode. His emotional journey with this man is one of the most powerful aspects of the show. He struggles with himself and what this new father means for his own identity.
Randall’s adoptive brother is Kevin. Kevin is a pretty boy who wants to make something more of himself and wants to be taken seriously. His story begins as the most cliched and seems almost shallow when it begins, but as he develops over the season the truth of the character shines through. He is so genuine and his struggle is deeper and more relatable than it would first seem. He grows into one of the most compelling aspects of the show.
Their sister is Kate. Kate is the weak link here. Her story feels reductive and simple compared to the other two. Her main dilemma is her weight. She has struggled her whole life with her weight and appearance. In the first season, her main focus is her weight loss challenge and her relationship with Toby. Toby is absolutely the most fun part of the show. He has this infectious sense of humor and this off beat sense of himself and the situations he’s involved in that just make him a delight to watch. If it seems like the description of Kate is turning into a description of Toby that’s because that’s exactly what happens in the show. Kate kind of gets pushed to the side by those around her. She isn’t given the most compelling storyline and is surrounded by deeper and more entertaining characters. She struggles to come through in the first season.
All of these characters have younger versions of themselves at different stage of life. There is a Randall, Kevin, and Kate as children and another trio as teenagers. The child actors that they have for all three not only have the perfect appearance, but their performances match their older counterparts beautifully.
The show is compelling yet simple. It is powerful yet doesn’t force itself on the audience. It is engrossing, and riveting without superheroes, space battles, or life and death situations. It is a powerful show that is absolutely worth watching. Make sure tissues are handy. It’s my cup of tea. – A
The following are episode breakdowns and reviews that contain spoilers and more personal reactions to each episode. Prepare for a spoiler-laden and informal deep dive…
The show kicks off with Jack and Rebecca. It’s Jack’s birthday and Rebecca is very pregnant. They are engaged in some sexy birthday fun that feels very specific and true. The show is loaded with specific details that feel so real. Rebecca goes into labor. They rush to the hospital.
Then we meet Randall, Kevin, and Kate. Randall meets his birth father in a hell of a scene that is so well written and the actors hit it out of the park. Randall especially is just breath taking. His emotions are clearly battling inside him trying to get out, but he keeps it contained. Kate is trying to lose weight. She meets Toby. Toby is delightful. Kate is okay. Kevin is the pretty boy star of a sitcom that is strangling him creatively. He throws a tantrum on set and storms off the show. This feels a little phony at first.
Back to Rebecca and Jack. There are complications with the delivery, and they lose one of their triplets. The doctor who works with them is and incredible force. The actor who plays him could not have been better. He is calm and lets the power of the words run the scenes. He is wonderful. First tears of the show come in the scene between Dr. K and Jack in the hallway after the delivery.
Finally, the show pulls its first magic trick. It reveals that Jack and Rebecca adopt a young black boy left at a fire station. The boy is Randall, their two other kids are Kevin and Kate. Jack and Rebecca’s story is actually in 1980 when the entire time is seemed as though it was all happening at the same time. It establishes two timelines without trickery or manipulation. It is awesome.
This episode picks up where the first left off. Kevin is stuck doing the TV show. During the last episode his walking off a successful show felt like arrogance and privilege talking. It is nice in this episode to see him get dressed down for his arrogance. However his decision to strike it out on his own and see if he actually has anything true to offer really pulls him back from the brink for me. I’m starting to like him.
It’s also nice to see his relationship with Randall deepen. They have always had problems. Not contrived problems like most shows but deep fundamental problems because of who each one is and their family situation. Kevin isn’t accepting of Randall.
Jack and Rebecca are having trouble. She feels like she’s doing it all by herself. Jack is distant, but a scene between them at the end of the episode just hits hard and feels so right and true as they work to get back toward each other. Jack sleeps in the hall outside their room and rededicates himself to their marriage. It’s a really wonderful moment.
Kate and Toby get closer and Toby shows her to lighten up a little and don’t worry about what other people think. They dance at a party with everyone watching. It’s nice, but feels a little pedestrian to be honest.
The big moment here is at the very end when the show pulls a cruel plot twist by showing us that in the present Rebecca is not with Jack anymore, but is instead with Jack’s best friend Miguel!!! WHAT!!!!
This one is mostly about Randall and his birth father William. William is such a delight. I love him. He is wonderful. He was an artist and musician back in the day. He fell into drugs and lead a bad life for a while. He abandoned his own son at a fire station. The actor portraying him has this incredible warmth. He is full of history and life and depth in his every look. He is awesome!!!
Too bad he has terminal cancer. Randall is letting him stay with them. It’s a struggle as they work their lives together. We find out that Rebecca knew Randall back in the day. She had trouble connecting to Randall and tracked down William. She met him at his apartment He was clean and trying and wanted to meet Randall. Rebecca was not ready for that. He left the room to get something for Randall when he comes back Rebecca is gone, and here come the tears. Here he is trying to be better and do better for his son and his only chance for ever seeing him disappears. It’s crushing.
This is a really good one. It is packed full. It has stayed vividly in my memory.
The family goes to the pool. It is a hot summer day. Jack promises to get enough chairs and make the day perfect.
In the present, Kevin lands a part in a Broadway play. It’s a serious part. It will challenge and test him. He also got it because of his sitcom role. Nice irony there. It perfectly undermines the characters internal drive while progressing his external goal.
Kate goes crazy when she sees Toby’s ex wife. She was gorgeous and perfect. Toby reveals a very dark side to his character. He suddenly has a serious shading to his thus far goofy persona.
William is harassed in Randall’s affluent neighborhood. It leads to some very interesting racial tension that is paralleled and backed up by the storyline at at the pool in the 1980’s.
At the pool, Jack struggles to give everyone the perfect day, but Kevin feels ignored. Randall meets black people for the first time, and Kate is taunted and rejected by the skinny girls. One of my favorite parts of the episode is the conversation between Jack and Rebecca. They don’t know what to do about all three of their kids. They struggle with the fact that they cannot protect the kids all the time. It is heartbreaking to see young Kate mistreated by the girls around her. Maybe a few tears there.
This whole episode really just deepens and adds layers to everyone. It’s a fantastic episode.
I’m calling this one the football episode. It introduces the idea that football is very important to the family. I have a feeling this is one of those TV show things where they invent a scenario that is very important to a character for one episode and then never bring it up again.
Anyway, The Steelers are very important to the family. Jack and Rebecca are at a football game. Jack punches some guy. I like the way Jack is developing as a character. He’s not always a good guy. He is complicated. Rebecca is also developing nicely. She has some interesting shading coming through in her personality.
Kate wants to watch the football game. Toby wants to join her. Kate finally agrees. Toby makes the dumb move of inviting a friend to join them. Come on Toby. I love you, but it was clear this was a big deal to Kate.
Kevin and William spend some time together here. They are awesome together. Their dynamic is magnificent. They are both artists. Their relationship is strange. William is the birth father of Kevin’s adoptive brother who is dying of cancer while living in his son’s home. Kevin is freeloading at the house because he’s lonely and insecure, but he won’t say that. I’m loving the way Kevin is growing.
Randall and Beth are my favorites this episode. Their relationship is so cool. Randall insists on using Kevin’s expensive hotel room as a romantic getaway. Beth is afraid she might be pregnant. They way they circle the issue and finally come together in support is wonderful. It is a common scene in film and TV, but it feels fresh here.
Also we find out in the last moments that Jack died. WHAT! Don’t do that to me show! Not in the final moments of the episode.
Again this show gives us a classic TV setup. Its career day, and no one understands what dad does for a living. Randall is a commodities trader based on weather futures, and he has to go in for career day. What makes this work is how Sterling K Brown plays Randall. His performance during career day is cringe inducing and hilarious and awesome.
The real meat of this episode though comes in the flashback to Randall as a kid. He’s brilliant. Jake and Rebecca want to put him in an elite school. Randall has been holding back. Jack calls him out in a heartbreaking scene. It is incredible to watch. There is tension and fear. There is frustration and anger. There is relief and love. It is a scene packed full of weight, depth, and reality. The scene feels so true. I love it.
Elsewhere, Kate gets a new job. The bosses daughter is a brat and treats her horribly. Kate overcomes her and wins. It honestly feels a little too easy. Kate leaves the bratty daughter on the side of the road when she’s supposed to be driving her somewhere, and instead of getting fired Kate is commended for her attitude and action. I don’t buy it.
On the other hand. Kevin wants to be better in the play, and his scene partner takes him to a funeral. Kevin breaks down talking about his father. It is raw and perfectly written. Once again, Kevin reveals layers and depth that just enrich him as a character beyond anything I anticipated for him.
This is a Randall and Kevin episode. It shows their relationship as kids which informs how they treat each other as adults. They shared a bedroom. Their personalities clashed. Kevin moved to the basement. They got on the football teams for their respective schools and ended up fighting on the field. This episode also does a nice job of hinting at the issues bubbling between Jack and Rebecca at this time. It hints and foreshadows very nicely.
We see Randall and Kevin now as adults. They are strangers. They play it perfectly. They are a very believable pair. They perfectly capture the bond of two brothers who don’t like each other and never talk except when they have to. This show continues to nail the relationships and create genuine characters.
Thanksgiving. This episode is packed. It is stuffed full of reveals and big story moments. Beginning in the past, we see a disastrous Pearson family Thanksgiving in which everything goes wrong, but Jack makes the most of it. He ends up creating indelible memories that last a lifetime for these kids. It feels authentic in that the adventures that go wrong are the one everybody remembers most and most fondly.
In the present Randall recreates their disastrous Thanksgiving. Kate leaves Toby. She wants to get her weight and life under control. Toby has quit the diet and Kate doesn’t want to be with him if he’s not working toward the same goal.
Kevin and his scene partner Olivia explore their relationship. She lets her guard down with Kevin a little bit at the suggestion of William who remains amazing and perfect in every scene.
The biggest reveal is that Randall finds out that Rebecca has known about William his entire life. She kept William away from Randall out of fear. Randall is understandably devastated. Tears there for sure. What a whirlwind of an episode. Wow
This show is remarkably funny when it wants to be. There are lots of high emotions, but it can really set up and pay off a joke.
Randall is upset, so he, Kevin, and Kate go up to the family cabin. Randall accidentally gets high and talks to a hallucination of Jack. Kevin screws things up with Olivia. Kate wants to be friends with Toby, but Toby doesn’t want that. I love Toby.
The big scene comes at the very end between Randall and Rebecca. Incredible performances from both of them. I love it.
Holy crap. Another insane episode. It’s Christmas. In the past, Kate has appendicitis on Christmas and the family spends the day in the hospital where they run into Dr. K. The most awesome doctor on TV. He might die, and I’m in tears just thinking of this sweet wonderful character being gone. They sit with him in his hospital room and it’s just perfect. Very touching very emotional.
In the present, Olivia abandons the play. Kevin is screwed. He convinces the plays writer to take over the lead roll. There is a delightful scene in which Kevin celebrates Hanukkah with Sloane’s family. Hilarious.
The most incredible scene takes place at Randall’s work Christmas party. He walks outside and sees a coworker on the edge. It is slowly revealed that he’s planning on jumping. The scene is fantastic. It is tense and desperate. The scene unfolds naturally and builds slowly. The subtext is thick here. It is all communicated through performance. Randall talks him down off the ledge. Not only does this scene work on its own, it foreshadows, it deepens character, it enriches the themes and world of the story. Great scene. Does it feel a little odd or hokey discussing it out of context? Absolutely, but the scene works in the moment.
Toby shows up to the Randall’s house for Christmas to win Kate back. Way to go Toby. I love that big goof ball. The character is wonderful as written, but the actor just knocks it out of the park. He brings this incredible energy and timing to everything he does. He then collapses! WHAT! He is rushed to the hospital! Come on show.
Each episode of this show is a roller coaster. It is wild. This episode features Jack and Rebecca looking for a house for their soon to be three children. It enriches both characters so much. The scene that killed me is when Rebecca is about to breakdown. She asks Jack to get ice cream. Jack leaves, but returns a moment later for his wallet. He hears her sobbing and in that moment of unspoken understanding everything changes. It’s magic to see actors performing so well, and a scene written so strongly.
The big killer in this episode is when William tells Randall that he wants to stop chemotherapy treatment. He is weak and ready to quit. It is crushing. Absolutely crushing to watch. Both actors of course are perfect in this scene. Tears for days after this one. What a powerhouse.
This episode has some wonderful stuff. There is a lot of Dr. K. We get to see what his life looks like as he copes with his wife’s death. We learn that his struggles to cope lead directly into his interactions with Jack in the first episode. This show does such an incredible job of enriching and shading in the details for every character. This show knows that nothing happens in a vacuum. Everyone comes from somewhere.
In the past Miguel takes Jack out golfing. He tells Jack that he will need to have a hobby that takes him out of the house once the kids show up. He meets a bunch of other dads who use golf to get away from their families. Jack tells them he doesn’t want to escape his family. He wants to be a part of his family. He actually wants to be with his wife and his loved ones. It’s a fantastic scene and an interesting one knowing what we know about Jack and his struggles in the future. This show loves showing us every side to every character. No one is one dimensional.
This episode also has a wonderful sequence with Rebecca. She has forgotten Jack’s birthday and fights desperately to make it up to him. It’s just a simple story of a woman trying her best after she makes a mistake. It’s really a fun storyline and absolutely worthwhile for the development of that character.
This episode begins with a segment in the past involving the kids birthday parties. It’s okay, but really takes off when Kate’s party goes poorly and Jack tries to cheer her up. Kate tells him she’d rather be alone. It’s such a true and honest moment in which Jack has to deal with the fact that things are changing and he won’t always be able to make things better for his daughter.
Flash forward to the present. Randall is stressed about work, and he blows off William, but William refuses to be rejected. He pulls Randall back to down to earth and Randall is reminded what is really important. Their dynamic is incredible. It is heartbreaking just thinking about it. William is an incredible character who is dying of cancer. It colors every moment with him, but he remains a source of joy in the show.
Kate goes to a camp to lose weight and is accosted by a sleazy camp worker who puts the moves on him. Yuck I hate this guy.
Meanwhile, Toby and Kevin go to a bar and their dynamic is hilarious! These two characters are polar opposites. They are different to their cores and those differences are fantastic. I love these two together. Toby gives Kevin romantic advice and Kevin runs off to find the woman he’s loved since childhood. His ex wife!!!! What?! I literally shouted what at my screen. I love how these characters unfold and reveal themselves to the audience.
So Kevin and Sophie, his ex wife talk. They try to reconcile. I’m honestly not a huge fan of how this starts and plays out. Kevin moved to LA while she stayed in New York, and he cheated on her out there. It feels a little too simple, and I don’t like it. I like her, but I feel like there should be more.
In the past, Miguel and his wife get a divorce which prompts Jack to try to bring life and love back into his marriage. This ends in a reveal that Rebecca wants to devote more time to her singing. (This isn’t a new thing. She’s been singing throughout the show.)
Meanwhile, Randall is stressing himself out to point he can’t focus or remember things. He gets a little scary in the end of this episode as he goes almost catatonic with stress.
This episode has maybe my favorite moment of the entire show. But first, Rebecca wants to go on tour with her band. Jack flips out when he finds out that Rebecca used to date one of the band members. He starts to spiral and it feels ugly and bad. No good will come of this. I am so invested in the relationships that anything that threatens them feels like bomb going off. It feels like trouble in my friends or family members marriage. I’m in too deep.
My favorite moment is when Randall is stressed out to the point of physical problems. He can’t stop his hands shaking. He can’t see. He is crippled with stress. It’s the opening of Kevin’s play. He gets a call from Randall. Randall doesn’t sound good. Kevin leaves the premiere. He runs across town to sit with his brother. This moment is pure tears. Having seen these two throughout their lives and seeing their relationship and their dynamic play out it is incredible to watch this small act of compassion after years of animosity. It is an incredible moment that retains its impact for me even just thinking about it.
We flash forward from the last episode. Randall is doing much better. William wants to take a trip down to see his hometown. He and Randall go on a road trip, and the episode takes a road trip through William’s life. It shows us a young William full of life and promise and musical ability. How he ended up in Pittsburgh. How he became a drug addict, and how he cleaned up. Finally, it shows us his death. This is the saddest moment of the show. My heart is breaking just thinking about the scene of his death. If I ever have the heart to watch it again, I absolutely will it so very well done. The whole episode is full of heart, humor, hope, and deep sadness. It’s a great episode. One of the best I’ve scene.
This episode holds some wonderful moments. It has William’s funeral. Tears. It has Rebecca and Randall reconcile. Tears. Kevin and Sophie get together for real. No tears, just really happy. Their relationship has developed nicely, and I love the cheesy romance of it. They loved each other since they were kids. I want them to be together. They seem good for each other. She balances out Kevin’s ego really well. I like them together.
But trouble is on the horizon for everyone. Kevin is going to make a movie far from Sophie. Kate blames herself for Jack’s death. (This actually is the only truly manipulative moment in the show. It is obviously trying to trick the audience into believing something horrible. Cheap moment.) And finally, Rebecca goes on tour with her band. Jack goes after her after drinking heavily. No good can come from this.
The end of the season. Jack shows up drunk to Rebecca’s gig. He punches Rebecca’s ex after he makes an inappropriate move on Rebecca. They drive home. They fight. Their fight is full of vitriol and venom and sounds like real fights I’ve overheard. The main couple, the back bone of this family and of the whole show is fractured perhaps beyond repair.
In the past, we get to see how Jack and Rebecca met. We get to see their lives leading up to the moment they find each other and how they meet. It’s a wonderful contrast between where they are in the rest of the episode.
The rest of the episode sets up some stuff for next season. Kevin is going to leave Sophie to go to LA to make a movie. Randall wants to adopt a baby. Kate wants to become a singer. This is not something that the show has ever mentioned before. It feels very random and out of left field.
The final moments of the sho between Jack and Rebecca are wonderful and give me hope.
I love this show.