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3 Things We Loved (And 2 Things We Hated) About Season 1 Of "This Is Us"

Can't wait for Season 2 of This Is Randall.

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LOVE: Playing with the timeline helps viewers relate to stories better.

NBC

The closing moments of a TV show's pilot, more than anything else, should leave you desperate for more. And that’s something the first episode of This Is Us had in spades, thanks to the game-changing reveal that the five characters we’d just watched for 40 minutes were actually all related: Jack and Rebecca’s (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) story was taking place in the past and they were, in fact, the parents to grown-up siblings Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Kevin (Justin Hartley), shown in the present.

While that twist certainly made viewers hungry for Episode 2, it also set an impossibly high bar for the show moving forward, as the time-traveling narrative needed to find new ways to surprise and illuminate beyond the initial reveal.

Wisely, the show quickly moved away from using that framing device in order to dole out shocks after it introduced a remarried (and age-progressed) Rebecca. From that point forward, the writers almost exclusively relied on the multiple timelines to root modern-day issues deep in this family’s tree — from Jack’s drinking to Kate’s weight to Randall’s deep-seated sibling rivalry with Kevin.

It’s not only presented as a refreshing take on the traditional family drama storylines, but showing echoes from the past has helped amplify the show’s most emotional moments. —Jarett Wieselman

HATE: The fat representation is not as good as it could be.

NBC

We need more fat characters on TV: fat characters who are complex and dynamic, who have characteristics beyond being fat, who express goals that aren’t just losing weight, and who remind viewers that there is nothing wrong with fat bodies and that “fat” is not a bad word. That’s a tall order, given the dearth of fat people on television — when they do show up, it’s often as a punchline.

I’ll admit that I was instantly smitten by Kate on This Is Us. It helped, of course, that Chrissy Metz is a talented and charismatic actor. Watching the pilot, I was worried that she might fall into the tropes of fat representation — her character felt a little one-dimensional. She did things like put “Do not dare eat this” Post-it Notes on cake and made grand statements like “I ate my dream life away.” But I was willing to keep watching and let the writers continue to flesh her out.

Kate certainly did develop and reveal more depth throughout the season, but her arc returned time and again to her weight loss. That was reinforced when Metz revealed that she was contractually obligated to lose weight, an assertion she later walked back. Whatever the details, her character’s arc was built around weight loss from its inception.

Meanwhile, Chris Sullivan, who plays Kate’s fiancé Toby, wears a fat suit, indicative of his character’s eventual weight loss — despite his initial resistance. Is it realistic that someone Kate’s size would think about her weight often? Sure. But it would be a whole lot more powerful for fat fans of This Is Us if they were allowed to experience fat positivity through her, if her journey could be one of learning to love her body as it is, instead of the relentless focus on how fatness is holding Kate back.

I realize that’s asking a lot for network television, given, again, the lack of fat characters on TV. It’s refreshing that This Is Us decided to tell Kate’s story and to cast an actual fat actor instead of (as with Sullivan’s Toby) an actor wearing a fat suit. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge the representation and ask for more: It’s easy to fall back on the familiar narrative of weight loss, but it’s also lazy for any viewer, and especially disappointing for viewers who are fat. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with losing weight, or that there aren’t stories to be mined from it: It’s that the show could do plenty with the character while also empowering viewers who rarely get to see themselves onscreen. Metz is clearly up to the challenge. Let’s hope Season 2 continues that trend and ditches the Post-Its for good. —Louis Peitzman

HATE: The uneven character writing is obvious and needs work.

NBC

The number of tweets and Facebook posts I’ve seen suggesting This Is Us rebrand itself as This Is Randall strongly indicates that I’m not alone in my strong preference for Sterling K. Brown’s character. Randall is easily the most developed of the Pearson siblings — of any of the characters on the series — and it’s tough watching anyone else try to compete. Not that it’s a competition, but on an ensemble drama, there are a lot of different characters to serve. When the others are too often painted in broad strokes, they rarely emerge as anywhere near as compelling as Randall.

On the plus side, that means an episode like “Memphis,” which focuses entirely on Randall and his biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones), easily emerges as the best episode of the series to date. It’s a rich, powerful exploration of a complicated relationship, and yes, in true This Is Us fashion, it’s overwhelmingly emotional. In fact, I cried more at “Memphis” than I did throughout the rest of the entire first season. (It’s just that good!)

But that’s also a problem for a show that wants to spread its story among multiple characters and plots: While some are worthwhile, most carry the stain of not being about Randall. Episodes like the impressively underwhelming finale “Moonshadow” suffer from spending all of its energy on Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack, a character that — despite Ventimiglia’s strong performance — was not given necessary depth this season. And he’s still more complex than Kevin, who is no one’s favorite Pearson sibling. Unless This Is Us is willing to reinvent itself as All Randall, All the Time (and let’s be real, I would not mind if it did), they’re going to have to give us more reasons to give a crap about everyone else. —LP

LOVE: Randall and William is the show’s best love story.

NBC

I didn’t expect to watch all of This Is Us’s first season. The way the show treated fatness in Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) storyline in the trailer alone almost curtailed any initial interest. Moreover, in the pilot, I had little-to-no desire to watch a conventionally attractive white man (Justin Hartley’s Kevin) find himself as a “serious actor.” But I gave it a chance and found myself glued to my seat each week. The reason was simple: Between Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) and his biological father William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones), this show was serving up two portrayals of genuinely nuanced and gentle black masculinity. That’s a rarity in Hollywood, even if it’s hardly a rarity in life. Watching them discover each other was the best love story on television so far this year.

In the pilot, Randall doesn't greet his biological father in a friendly fashion: He knocks on his door and gives him a long spiel about how he turned out alright in spite of the beginnings William provided. But the trepidation gives way to curiosity, and as these two men learn more about each other, we learn more about them. Randall is a brilliant man with an incredible wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and two daughters — and he’s always yearned for more of a connection to his blackness and his history. In finding William, he finds himself. He’s also a man who puts a tremendous amount of pressure on himself, and the anxiety issues that bubble up in Randall throughout the season offer a portrait we almost never get to see of a black man battling mental illness. Played to perfection by Brown, Randall is This Is Us’s most thoroughly thought-out character, and he easily carried the season.

William, meanwhile, offers his own rare perspective. Viewers often do not get to see an elderly black bisexual man depicted on screen, especially with the great depth and affection with which William was written and portrayed. We are used to seeing black men die, and William’s terminal illness does take him from us. But even with his doomed fate, William’s story managed to be about his life. Whether it was in flashbacks of young William (Jermel Nakia) and young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) longing to meet each other, or in watching their present-day reconnections as they bonded and William became an indelible part of the family, the relationship between William and Randall was the heartrending center that held everything together. —Alanna Bennett

LOVE: Randall and Beth have the marriage we all deserve.

NBC

This show should honestly be called This Is Beth and Her Sweet Husband Randall, because they are the best part of the show. I’ve been in awe of their relationship from their first scene together; the ease in which they went from rooting on their girls side by side as they play soccer to discussing Randall finding his biological father indicated a type of intimacy that we scarcely get to see on TV. It's the kind of affection and warmth that doesn’t need physical touch — the kind that comes from building a life together, and from knowing each other better than they know themselves. Whether they were braiding their daughters’ hair together before school, stealing kisses while making lunch, or having a steamy bath together in between juggling the parade of family members that come through their gorgeous house, they always looked genuinely happy to be going through life’s day-to-day routines as a pair.

As much as I enjoy watching them together when things are going well, Randall and Beth shine best in the midst of adversity. The moment Beth became aware that Rebecca had known about William Randall’s whole life, she demanded that he be told the truth because no one has his back more than her. She explained Randall’s complexities to William so their relationship could thrive. And when she was struggling with not getting a proper goodbye from William later in the season, Randall was able to look past his own mourning and give her a chance to say it publicly even if it meant that he wouldn’t be able to. THIS IS LOVE!

It’s rare we get to see a genuinely happy and healthy marriage on a television drama, let alone a black couple's. Randall and Beth could easily be casted as a white couple, but they weren't. We get to see the depth of black love without the chaos on other TV dramas — or the flatness of it often portrayed in sitcoms. It’s great to see a black marriage that feels attainable on television. —Sylvia Obell

MIXED: The emotional manipulation is too...manipulative.

NBC

Jezebel’s Bobby Finger put it best when he asked, “Why the Fuck Would You Watch This Is Us?” It wasn’t a judgment of the quality of the series, but of the way the cast and creator have spent the past few months gleefully teasing the emotional devastation of their show. It is effective, but it’s also kind of sadistic. This Is Us is cry porn – it will make you cry. If you’re looking for something to watch on TV specifically for that purpose, your cup (read: your tear ducts) runneth over. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Who among us hasn’t sobbed uncontrollably at fictional characters? But This Is Us is a little obnoxious in its inability to stop patting itself on the back for how many feels it gives its audience.

The feels, though, are there — and that’s why you’ve got to give the show some credit for what it does right. There is something sort of masterful about the way This Is Us has structured itself in its first season: It’s like a weekly murder mystery in which the victim is always your heart. But by constantly talking about it, teasing, and then rehashing every cry moment, Dan Fogelman keeps showing his hand. The point is to make you weep with abandon. Not only does constantly articulating that cheapen it, it also reveals the rather gimmicky nature of the show. Parenthood, for example, never promoted itself by promising severe emotional distress, and I spent more time crying at that show than not. Plus, there’s the fact that overly hyping the imminent tear-jerking makes duds like the Season 1 finale “Moonshadow” that much more disappointing. I was told it would be heartbreaking and beautiful! In fact, it was one great fight scene amid an otherwise boring hour. (Don’t even get me started on that poker game scene, which I swear somehow felt longer than the entire episode.)

You cannot build a show on gut-punch twists — well, evidently, maybe you can, but you certainly can’t sustain it. You also can’t drag your audience along endlessly, occasionally reminding them that you haven’t revealed how one of the characters dies yet, but wow is it going to be rough when he does! This Is Us has the potential for more than that, if it’s willing to stop spending all its energy trying to ruin your life and then gloat about it. If you keep the storytelling grounded and the family drama authentic, I promise I will still cry when appropriate — and probably also sometimes when not. —LP

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