For the love of god, the hashtag emoji for the premiere of This Is Us was a box of Kleenex.
It takes some nerve to lean into the idea of your show’s reputation as an emotional spectacle. To be honest, we actually found it to be as amusing and clever as it is commoditizing and crass. As much as our obsession with weeping while watching the hit NBC series is its biggest attraction, as it enters season two, it could also be its biggest liability.
Turns out that after season two’s premiere, which featured two big gut-punch scenes and ended in a reveal that completed the emotional knockout, that box of Kleenex—digital or otherwise—is still needed.
Yes, TV’s favorite cry-porn drama can still, in season two, make the tears come. (Like that one? I have more. The cry porn can still get us off. It still knows how to titillate the tear ducts. It’s back and, this time, it’s on emotional Viagra. If the heartbreak lasts over six hours, call a doctor. Hey-o!)
The truth is that the preoccupation with the emotional impact of the show was always somewhat pornographic. Before it even aired, premiering in a deeply cynical and culturally jaded time, it was branded a XXX guilty pleasure. At first there was shame in watching it, and then in enjoying it. People who liked it were initially defensive, often watching alone when no one could catch them.
By the finale, they were so unapologetic and empowered in the embracing of it in the face of those who might judge that they weren’t afraid to loudly protest that its first season finale ended without the desired money shot: finding out how patriarch Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) died. Worse, we didn’t even cry. Nobody got their rocks off!
Me? Oh, I just watch it for the story. And that’s where Tuesday night’s season two premiere of the series excelled.
There was no need to resort to the same kind of twisty narrative tricks that made so much of the first season, especially the series premiere, such a zeitgeist-seizing hit.
There was the kind of restraint that the show possesses when it’s at its best: refraining from explicit emotional manipulation and instead putting a soft Hallmark filter—a lilting soundtrack, a perfectly articulated monologue—on these achingly human moments. When it’s good, it’s not a show that panders. It’s about big feelings in life’s small moments.
And, yes, when we needed that one big moment, it finally came. We finally get a clue to how Jack died—and it’s not what we expected.
Like it was in the pilot, it’s the Big Three’s birthday. Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown) are all at life-crossroads, and the show, as it does, hops back and forth in time to drop clues that might inform, or at least give context to, their decisions.
We also flash back to Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack revealing to the triplets that, following the spectacular argument that highlighted the season one finale, they’re going to separate. Just when it seems that all these scenes are going to be good for are some ace circa ‘90s Tom Hanks references—Rebecca: “We’re going to give ourselves over to Tom Hanks and he’s going to make us feel so much better about the mind-blowing crap that’s going on in our heads”—it comes full circle in the final moments. (More on that later.)
A major storyline this season, it appears, is going to be Randall and his wife, Beth’s, journey to adopting a third child, mimicking the family arrangement that adopted Randall experienced growing up and, more pointedly, reacting to the death of Randall’s biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones).
Those two big tearjerkers both fell in this arc. And boy, were they good.
Mandy Moore as Rebecca, in her infamous old age makeup, nails a long monologue that finally lays bare the truth to Randall about why, after the trauma of losing one of the triplets she gave birth to, she adopted him. She spares him the bullshit of “I knew when I first saw you” and gets to the truth of it: She didn’t want to adopt him. She had to be coaxed by Jack. And she was so glad he did. “He pushed a stranger on me, and that stranger became my child, and that child became my life. He became you.” I cried again retyping that.
Would anyone in real life have the wherewithal to so beautifully elucidate such a complicated feeling when caught off guard at such a moment? God no. But that’s what makes this show so cathartic. It toes the line of schmaltz, but stays on the side of emotional wish fulfillment. It captures a feeling we’ve all had, but expresses it with an eloquence we don’t have.
This Is Us has tackled a host of topical issues already, and it’s intriguing to witness the adoption arc be delved into deeper, to see it discussed with frankness but also, too, with the show’s signature emotional bombast—something that will elicit compassion from viewers, especially for anyone who has gone through the process. That’s another of the show’s most valued currency: as a catalyst for empathy.
Sterling K. Brown is phenomenal as Randall, earning his Emmy with a jaw-dropping juggling of gregariousness and brittle vulnerability. His performance was so charming last season, though, that it was easy to ignore the unfair burden his sainted well-intentioned actions put on his wife.
As Beth, Susan Kelechi Watson was the MVP of this episode, standing up as Randall’s partner with the fortitude and warmth required to be equal to the man she loves. Their talk in the park when she suggests they adopt a black teen was cry number two.
There’s a necessity for the cast, at this point, to have an instant familiarity and a breezy rapport with each other, because the scenes, like Parenthood, fly by at an exhausting pace. Because of that, Kate and Kevin’s storylines took the emotional backseat—especially Kevin’s. (Story of my life, folks.)
Kate summons the courage to overcome insecurities about her weight and audition to be a professional singer, and then gets the wakeup call to put in the work to make that actually happen. Kevin needs to work on his codependence with Kate, and at some point guilts his ex-wife to fly and meet him for his birthday even though her mother has M.S.? I don’t know. His storylines, sadly, always fall flat.
But then there was big cry number three: Rebecca in a flashback going to make amends with Jack, Jack confessing his drinking problem, Rebecca pledging to get through it with him anyway, and then THE DEATH REVEAL.
SPOILER ALERT: It appears to involve a house fire, though of course the show isn’t giving too much away now. There’s still a whole season to get through. But it is funny that there is a sort of Game of Thrones-like obsession over Jack’s fate. There are fan theories and predictions that occupy as much space on the internet as any sci-fi series’ mythology might. It’s the most unusual thing about the whole This Is Us phenomenon.
Here’s this family drama about feelings, a series with a success that many attribute to the escape it provides from the darkness of the world surrounding us. But it’s given the blockbuster treatment of an HBO epic. This Is Us is an event. There’s even an aftershow now!
That kind of hype is kryptonite—especially for a breakout network show like this, which is heralded as some sort of Superman for a network landscape ravaged by crumbling ratings and a dearth of awards attention. Look what happened to Empire, the last series to truly hit this kind of stratosphere. Its buzz took a crippling blow in its second season. Cookie hasn’t been able to find her cape since.
In that regard, fans—and certainly NBC—must be pleased that the This Is Us cry-porn is still just as effective. Hey, they don’t have those Kleenex boxes on standby for nothing.