LOS ANGELES — With each step taken (forward or backward) in its intricately structured master plot, NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us” risks losing another once-ardent fan.
It just happens that way, especially on a show where there is no such thing as a small tangent or a minor development. Some viewers gave up somewhere in the first two seasons, while waiting to learn the exact cause of death for the Pearson family patriarch, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), which was teased out past anyone’s patience.
When the answer came — Jack died of a heart attack after rescuing his family from a January 1998 blaze in their Pittsburgh home — “This Is Us” made a clear statement about its mission: The whole story will be long and complicated, and always rippling outward. The Pearsons have grieved and will grieve, have celebrated and will celebrate. And the family will keep expanding, even past old ideas of what and who makes a family.
Because so much of “This Is Us” still flashes back to the early 1990s, before the big fire, the house still stands — within Stage 32 at the Paramount lot where the show is filmed. TV critics and reporters were invited to the set earlier this month to look around and ask some questions, and the first few of us to arrive all went directly to the Pearson kitchen, to see if the faulty Crock-Pot that started the fire was there.
It was not. The Crock-Pot, which became its own kind of inanimate character, is in prop storage, because who knows when or if “This Is Us” might again need to make use of this important and fraught symbol? (Meanwhile, somewhere in Washington, an alert Smithsonian curator bides her time.)
As we waited to chat with the show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, and a few of its cast members, it became clear that, as critics, we like to grouse about “This Is Us” as much as we like to praise it. This has become the show’s central viewing experience, and it’s something all good family dramas (and even soap operas) share: an exasperation over where the story is going, leavened with admiration for the clever ways it keeps us hooked.
Subplots and twists in the show’s current third season (some of which are discussed here; fair warning) have run hot and cold. After an entire canon of Hollywood treatments of Vietnam War trauma, it was hard to stay interested in the soul-searching journey Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) took to modern-day Vietnam, along with all the Jack-related wartime flashbacks it triggered.
The net gain was an uncle that the Pearson siblings — Kevin, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — never knew existed. Here was Jack’s long-lost (believed dead) brother, Nick (played by guest star Griffin Dunne), discovered living in a trailer in the Pennsylvania woods, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. It took most of a season for Nick’s full story to emerge, and once it did, he declined the chance, in last week’s episode, to tentatively join the family embrace. Now it’s up to the others to mull over the unpleasant idea that Jack, elevated to hero-husband and perfect-father status since his death, lied to his wife and children about his brother’s existence.
Other plots this season were even more difficult to love, especially Randall’s noble yet logistically impractical campaign for a Philadelphia City Council seat held by a longtime incumbent.
What viewer wouldn’t side with Randall’s wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), whose support for Randall waned as the season progressed? For many “This Is Us” fans, Beth has long stood as the sensible rock in an extended family full of emotional neediness, thanks to a performance from Watson that has, to this point, thrived on the character’s enviable sturdiness and sharp tongue. Why doesn’t Randall just do what she says? (Why don’t all the characters just do what Beth says?)
Sooner or later the show's storm clouds had to drift Beth's way. An episode at midseason flashed forward in time to indicate a rift (Separation? Divorce?) that will eventually occur between Randall and Beth, along with a looming crisis that seems dire, on the order of a deathbed scene. What happens to present-day Beth to get to that point?
This week’s episode, which aired Tuesday and is titled “Our Little Island Girl,” called upon “This Is Us’s” deft touch for backstory. We learned that Beth grew up in Washington, where her mother, Carol (Phylicia Rashad), is a widowed school principal who resists retirement, even with declining health.
Beth’s Jamaican-born father, Abe (Carl Lumbly), died when she was a teenager (played in flashback by Rachel Naomi Hilson), leaving an absence that parallels Beth’s future husband’s story. We saw an even younger Beth (played by Akira Akbar) as she entered an exclusive dance academy overseen by a demanding instructor (Goran Visnjic).
If you are invested in “This Is Us,” an episode like this can be like finding a family photo album you didn’t know existed — any answers it offers also come with new questions. The idea that Beth was raised by a stern, Claire Huxtable-type mother fits in with what we think we already know about her; the brutal discipline and disappointments of the ballet world also fill in some blanks on Beth’s personality.
The producers and writers have been eager for three seasons to delve into an all-Beth episode. It was written by Eboni Freeman, who joined the show’s writing staff (eight out of 12 of which are women) this season and pursued an idea that Beth, at her mother’s urging, sacrificed her dream to follow a more secure career path. “It’s been full circle, because I was a student at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy,” Freeman told critics during a panel discussion after a screening of “Our Little Island Girl.” “I had my own realization, where I ended up quitting [dance] myself when I was a teen.”
The real aim of the episode, however, was to show Beth with a father whom she idolized and a mother who was overly strict and emotionally reserved. As with all “This Is Us” characters, the goal is to drill down to the core feelings of each person who winds up becoming a Pearson family member and then see how the pieces fit the overall puzzle that forms the family saga. By giving up dance, Beth set herself on a path to “This Is Us”-land; as viewers saw on Tuesday’s episode, dance may be the thing that takes her away from Randall.
Watson, 37, who also studied dance from a young age, was thrilled to learn that her character would be doing some significant dancing. “I got a text from [co-producer] Kay Oyegun that said, ‘Girl, can you dance for real?’ I said ‘Yeah’ and she said, ‘But, like, for real, you like it?’ ”
Where does Beth’s story go from here? The writer, two producers and co-star aren’t allowed to say. At one moment in Tuesday’s episode, we saw younger versions of Beth and Randall (played as a teen by Niles Fitch) standing at the same name-tag table at a college mixer. She doesn’t notice him, but he certainly notices her.
By now, the people who make “This Is Us” and the people who watch “This Is Us” can hardly consider that a trivial moment, or something that was just casually tossed in. By letting it happen there, in that way, it becomes part of the show’s complex design.
“Whenever there’s something big like that, we give it a lot of discussion . . . because once it’s on screen, we’re really locked into it, and we try to be truthful to our mythology,” said showrunner and executive producer Elizabeth Berger. “We are going to be revisiting that moment [and] other moments of their college experience, coming up soon.”
That’s why, in the end, fans of the show stick with “This Is Us,” even when it veers in a direction that might bore us: There’s a plan for everything. In a time when so much is left to chaos and shrugs and incompetence, the show offers the comforting illusion that some omniscient force is in control of what happens. In this universe, everyone’s story eventually gets told.
This Is Us (one hour) resumes Tuesday, March 5, at 9 p.m. on NBC. There are five episodes remaining in Season 3.