This past Tuesday, “This Is Us” returned with the same realism and emotion that have brought fans to laughter and tears over the past four seasons. Despite the Pearson family being full of members that are anything but ordinary — to name a few, Kevin (Justin Hartley), a famous movie star; Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a now accomplished politician; and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), the most perfect father — the show somehow maintains a sense of authenticity through the humanity and experiences of the characters, mirroring everyday life for all audiences.
“This is Us” has always existed within our world. This is what makes the characters and storylines all the more compelling — it almost feels a little too real. The creators of the show chose not to shy away from this paradigm, covering the major events which have occurred since the season four finale.
After a brief recap of the previous season, the episode jumps right back into where it left off. Kevin is still processing the news of Madison’s (Caitlin Thompson) unplanned pregnancy when the pandemic is swiftly introduced.
“It feels like this is all happening just as the world is falling apart,” Madison says.
“The virus thing?” Kevin nonchalantly responds, a sentiment many may relate to when reflecting on their initial concern regarding the coronavirus. This naivety is almost painful, particularly as one watches these characters begin to live through the event, which has yet to subside.
The behaviors and procedures brought about by the pandemic are reflected on the screen from the get-go. The characters are masked up, using hand sanitizer liberally and sharing socially-distanced moments. Kevin and Madison break the baby news to Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) from six feet away, ending in awkward air hugs with a comic shot of the quirky neighbor witnessing the odd, yet new normal, moment.
The episode also takes on this humorous tone in other scenes when dealing with the pandemic. A notable one is Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) sharing the breaking news of the first celebrity to test positive. “Hanks got the corona?!” responds Randall in disbelief — “Hanks” being Tom Hanks, of course. These moments, albeit a bit cringey, are necessary in achieving that feel-good essence “This Is Us” is known for, while simultaneously working to reflect the real world.
Including the pandemic is successful in making the world of “This Is Us” feel exactly like the one we are currently living in. However, though necessary to maintain accuracy to reality, it serves no real purpose in the plot. The most poignant development is Randall’s struggle with his identity and relationships during this current moment of heightened awareness of racial injustice.
Randall, Beth and their girls all process George Floyd’s death and the tremendous anger and sadness that comes with this tragedy of police brutality that remains an enduring issue. In one scene, they gather around the TV watching the protests that followed. Tess (Eris Baker) pleads to change the channel, just for a minute, and the shot of protestors clashing with law enforcement is promptly replaced by the familiar bright blue stage of “Family Feud.”
By the way, everything mentioned so far happened within the first ten minutes of the two-hour premiere. The writers did not waste any time setting the stage for the environment in which the rest of the story would take place.
The remainder of the episode follows in typical “This Is Us” fashion. Audiences learn more about Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) early onset Alzheimer’s, Kate and Toby’s journey to adoption and the usual flashbacks — those in this episode date back forty years ago to the days surrounding the Big 3’s birth.
The strongest moments of this episode, however, are those centered around Randall’s self-reckoning as a Black person adopted by a white family. This is played out through his intimate conversation with Malik (Asante Blackk), Zoom calls with his therapist (Pamela Adlon) and most memorably, the emotional scene with Kate nearing the end of the premiere.
Kate is coming to the late realization of the systemic racism within this country and reaching out to Randall for help with good intentions to learn. She feels this time is “different,” but for Randall it is history repeating itself, and he is exhausted. Having grown up in a household where race was not discussed, Randall held everything in to avoid making his family uncomfortable, but he cannot do it anymore. “If I made things better for you, then where does that leave me?” he asks.
“This Is Us” has never been a light fare, but reliving the events of 2020 on top of the already emotional drama does not allow for any escapism. Buckle up, this season is going to be a level five emotional rollercoaster.