‘This Is Us’ Spends A Whole Episode In 1980 With The Unusual “The Big Day”

NBC

A few thoughts on last night’s This Is Us just as soon as I buy something that’ll rot your teeth…

Doing an episode set entirely in the past, on the day of the Big Three’s births, seemed a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it would save us a week of Kevin and Kate subplots that keep hitting the same two or three notes (or, in Kate’s case, the one note) over and over again, and it would give us a lot of Dr. K, as well as more Jack and Rebecca than we usually get. On the other, it would mean no grown-up Randall at all (and no Beth, period), even if the whole episode was about how Randall’s arrival at the fire station wound up saving three different families. (Four, if you count William’s relief at ensuring his son would be somewhere safer than what he could provide.)

And unevenness seems to be baked into this series’ DNA, regardless of how many eras a particular episode covers, and “The Big Day” proved true to the spirit of the show so far, in ways good and bad.

The highlight, by far, was Dr. K learning to follow his own advice to Jack and moving ever so slowly past the death of his beloved wife. There was nothing particularly surprising here, but Gerald McRaney made Dr. K’s grief and loneliness so palpable, so painful, that there was no need for some of the show’s usual narrative tricks. Just plain, honest storytelling featuring an actor who’s had a remarkable second act to his career after becoming famous for goofier stuff like Simon and Simon and Major Dad. There may come a point where the ’80s timeline starts shoehorning Dr. K into unrelated plots — Dr. K becomes Kevin’s math tutor! Dr. K teaches Kate not to run away from home! — just because McRaney’s too good not to use somewhere, but we aren’t there yet, and he’s worth the effort so far.

Expanding the role of the fireman who brought baby Randall to the hospital, and showing the way that Randall almost wound up being raised by a different white family, was an interesting what-if, and a good use of the suddenly ubiquitous Gracepoint alum Virginia Kull (who’s also in Sneaky Pete and HBO’s upcoming Big Little Lies). But where the show has done well in the past telling short stories about characters we know even a little about — say, the montage of how William and Randall’s mom met, fell in love, and became addicts — this was more or less starting from scratch, and didn’t entirely make it to where it wanted to, emotionally, even with a couple of good performances.

As for Jack and Rebecca in the hours before the best and worst event of their lives, Dan Fogelman has said he wanted to show more of that day than appeared in the pilot, like revealing what the couple actually said to each other when Jack broke the terrible news to her about the third baby. But this wasn’t a situation where we needed more than we had already been shown; the suggestion can often be more powerful than the concrete reality, no matter how vulnerable the actors are being. (I also don’t want to know what Bill Murray said to ScarJo at the end of Lost in Translation.)

Beyond that, the A-story fell into a familiar Jack/Rebecca pattern where he’s patient and saintly, and she’s more of a neurotic mess. The comic side of things tends to be where Mandy Moore is best used, but as I mentioned a while back, it’s hard to find her quite as endearing or sympathetic now that we know the choice she’ll make down the line about keeping Randall from meeting William.

Still, it was an interesting experiment, and the Dr. K stuff alone was worth it. Seeing previews for next week’s episode made me realize how little I was looking forward to returning to Kevin and Kate, even if we’ll get Randall and Beth and William back in the bargain.

What did everybody else think?

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