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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dude, Like We Are Who We Are, So Being Who We’ve Been Before Is Always Who We’ll Be. #ThisIsUs #NBC #3weekroundup

Dude, Like We Are Who We Are, So Being Who We’ve Been Before Is Always Who We’ll Be. #ThisIsUs #NBC #3weekroundup

All pictures courtesy of NBC

So NBC wanna tug at my heartstrings, huh? Hmph! Yeah, I don’t know about that. But since three episodes of their latest family drama have passed, then I will take a crack at reviewing it in our latest three-week roundup. So, how does the NBC drama fair? Well, I don’t know but you’re definitely gonna get my thoughts on it.

NBC’s This Is Us had a rather dubious start in my mind as none of the commercials really swept me away, not to mention they didn’t necessarily reveal too much about the plot or what the show is really about. In reality, the show is really about nothing but family. Essentially they wanted to make a drama without the usual principles of said dramas driving the plot: families fighting over business/power (ex. Dynasty, Empire, Brothers and Sisters), people fighting for ideals (you can include stuff like Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Americans), people fighting toward a particular goal (ex. Lost), crime, medical, law and sci-fi. This, however, is more similar to Parenthood, Gilmore Girls, or even 7th Heaven—not about a particular subject or story but about the people. It is wholly about the characters, which, while it can be good, is very rare and harder to sell. Just bear in mind that the show depends heavily on you liking, identifying or sympathizing with the characters. If you can’t do that, chances are you probably won’t like the show. Yes, I said that already without digging into the show at all. Should this be at the beginning of the review? Hell no! What the heck am I doin’? Let’s get to the dang review.

Episode one opens with the journey of a freshly married couple of white people (race is important. Bear with me) who we meet on the father’s birthday. Madly in love with his wife and looking forward to his birthday surprise, he awaits his wife to dance for him in her lingerie and we get our first surprise. She comes around the corner two seconds after her belly does and shuffles her pregnant body in as sexy of a way as possible. No normal pregnancy, she’s having triplets and, surprise, surprise, her water breaks and they rush to the hospital. As it turns out, their regular doctor is out sick. They meet their substitute doctor who makes small chit-chat and starts in on the hours-long process of having babies. Their sub doc is a man they’ve never met who extols words of wisdom throughout the process as the wife gives birth. Our wife here is played by once-singer (does she still sing at all) Mandy Moore. Our husband is played by Milo Ventimiglia. As we get going with their story, we suddenly switch to...

A fat white woman waking up on her 36th birthday. That fat comment isn’t body-shaming, it is prefacing the main plot of her storyline. Kate (Chrissy Metz) is a woman who has struggled with her weight her entire life. She looks at least about 300+ pounds and has an addiction to food. As said, she awakens on her birthday to find an entire cake in her refrigerator. Unfortunately, she is so close to the bottom of her food addiction and obesity problem that she has to Post-it all of her food with notes about staying away from it until her party later that night. Yes, she’s got big problems, all of them stemming from just how big she is.

We switch to yet another character and the idea finally sets in that this will be one of those shows that jumps around a lot between the characters, seemingly telling a bunch of different stories. This time we are privy to the private bedroom exploits of Kevin (played by Justin Hartley). Kevin lives in LA and is a top actor on a notable sitcom entitled Manny. When first we see him he is having an existential crisis after completing a threesome the prior night. The girls still there and dancing for him, he considers his future as the Manny (man-nanny for those who may be getting confused). Why is he having this crisis suddenly? * Shoulder Shrug * We don’t know just yet.

Finally, we switch to another guy, a black guy, Randall (played by recent Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown of American Crime Story: People v. OJ Simpson) who lives in New York with a wife and two young daughters at home. At work when we meet him, his office is celebrating not only something great he recently accomplished, but also his birthday. In this place he lives, he works, he has made a real true home, but something looks off with his character as if he is missing something. The episode goes on telling each story in snippets, as they all try to show something in each act or between commercial breaks. From here on, I will tell each story individually all the way through until everything comes together in the final paragraph for episode one as this is how the writers structured the show.

The younger guy is Randall. 

Starting with Kate, we see her go through the woes of being overweight in a society that frowns upon people even inconveniently stocked with a few pounds, let alone ridicules the grossly overweight. Not blind to her problem, she goes to some sort of anonymous-style group meeting for people with body dysmorphia (I say body dysmorphia rather than a weight problem because there is one woman in there that really isn’t fat, but sees herself that way). While there, one of the fat, balding guys (think taller Homer Simpson) makes a joke about food and she is one of the few that laugh. This man, Toby (Chris Sullivan), immediately finds her attractive and moves in for the kill. She rejects him, saying she can’t have any “fat friends,” as in gentlemen callers of the portly variety at the moment. He then makes a joke that, “I guess I’ll just have to lose the weight, then,” and it cracks her up. No one has ever offered that for her: for him to lose weight and still accept her for who she is rather than telling her that it is she who needs to change. Therefore, she needs to keep him around for a while. They even go out on a date and all he can think about is getting laid because it has been quite a while, but she doesn’t want to get too involved because it’s her birthday and she’s got other stuff to do like mope about how fat she is.

Meanwhile, Kevin is having one of the worst days in his career. While at the studio filming his multi-cam sitcom in front of a live audience, he loses his commitment to the job and flips out. He doesn’t look the type (maybe that’s why they cast Justin) but he is the kind of person who wants to be taken seriously as a thespian. It rather irks him that he isn’t doing something with more depth, like Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams. And when the show creator/director/writer tells him that he must do one particular scene that exploits his good looks as opposed to a heartwarming scene as originally written, he can’t take it anymore. In a huff, he quits the show and leaves the set. Destined for infamy, he doesn’t escape the set without one of the audience members using their phone against the rules and recording him to a Youtube account. He’s been freaking out because he’s having his birthday and realizes that he’s achieved virtually nothing with his career, even though he has a show.

Back in New York, Randall has been having a great day but as said before, something is missing. We found out what that is when he pulls up to a tiny tenement of an apartment building and buzzes the door. Someone from the apartment comes down to greet him. An old, thin black man who has seen much better days comes down to answer the door. Randall gives the man the rundown, telling him his name, then telling the man that he is his son who he left at a fire station many years ago and that he has finally found his bio-father after so many years. He doesn’t really want nor need anything from him, but just came to rub it in his face how good he has done for himself in life, how he was adopted and how he never really needed the man. The man then invites him in where they talk some more about why he came there. Randall at first wants to say screw you old man, but then ends up inviting him to see his children (the man’s grandchildren). The man, William (played by Ron Cephas Jones), gets to meet his daughter-in-law and his two grandchildren, two young girls. Randall tells his wife who the man really is, but he tells the children that William is simply a friend from work. His emotions run so high that he forgets time and has the man stay until it is late. Only then does William tell his son that he actually has stage 4 cancer and only has a few more months to live, a year at the most. Kindness bubbling in his heart, Randall invites William, this man who is his father but he barely knows, to stay at his house for the night... or maybe longer, like, until he dies. William doesn’t want to be rude, especially not on Randall’s birthday, so he stays.

Rebecca (Mandy Moore) with baby Randall

Finally back to the couple having triplets. The first one comes out, a boy, but unfortunately, the child dies shortly after arriving. The father Jack (again, Milo) struggles to tell the mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) but knows that so long as they push forward only good things will happen. He and the doctor talk about how when the doctor was young and before his recently deceased wife passed, they were also pregnant with multiple babies. Twins, they also lost one of the babies. They made it through slowly and together, but they made it through. Finally, with the other two babies out safe and sound, Jack stands at the viewing window to look at his children: a beautiful baby boy and girl. But as he’s looking, he sees another guy standing next to him worried and sighing as he doesn’t know what the future holds for this one baby. As it turns out, the man is a firefighter who found a baby left at the firehouse and brought him here. He then offers the father a smoke in the hospital and that’s when we get hit with the surprise. Surprise, they’re all related! Turns out it is the late 1970s, early 80s, Jack and Rebecca see the third baby, a black baby that they adopt and name Randall.

What we see of the other three adults: Randall, Kevin, and Kate, are their children all grown up and living their lives. Kate and Kevin actually being twins both live in LA and celebrate/weep through their birthday on the floor of her bathroom, while their brother across the country turns out the lights and lies down next to his wife. The funny thing is that while all of this should have been obvious to me halfway through, I was so unprepared for any kind of mysterious twist that I didn’t see the obvious one until it was revealed at the end. Yes, the show is structured in a way to where the writers want constantly to hit you with a new surprise each episode, revealing another slice of their lives and how things have changed through the years.

Episode two sets the expectations of the time frames. While Kevin, Kate and Randall (listed in order of what their parents consider their birth order, though Randall is probably the oldest) all have a timeline that is concurrent and in current day, the timeline with their parents Jack and Rebecca will follow an unorthodox scatterplot throughout the season. Whereas last episode they were just giving birth to the twins and adopting their third little black baby, this episode zooms forward until they are already going to school and old enough to pick on each other. This time we see the picture of a normal middle-class family struggling to make it from day to day. Jack and Rebecca have marital problems stemming from Jack’s lacking parental presence. Though it is implied that it is just his marriage that he is struggling with, there could be something else going on that will be revealed in a later episode. He stops to have drinks with one of his good work buddies Miguel (played by Jon Huertas fresh from Castle fame) who tells him how lucky he is to have such a wonderful woman as his wife and how he should treat her right because some people aren’t that lucky; Miguel is not that lucky.

While Jack is dealing with the wedding and family blues, Rebecca is helping her two sons get along because Kevin doesn’t stick up for his black brother Randall when kids tease him at school. A white family with one black child sticks out today, so imagine the 80s and 90s. Eventually, they sorta start getting along but Kevin is still not as committed to his brother as he should be. Rebecca and Jack talk about their lack of parenting prowess and she tells him that he needs to be there or not be there, but don’t be half-in, half out. He agrees and makes the commitment to be better.

Meanwhile, back in our time, Kate goes out on another date with her fat guy who has already lost hella weight after working out with her for, like, a week. She has lost nothing and is a little jealous, but it is OK because they are committed to helping each other. They go to a Hollywood party that her brother is forced to go to by his agent, and they dance the night away like no one is watching.

Speaking of Kevin, he has no idea what to do with his life now. Not only is he a laughing stock due to his freak-out video going viral, he also is told by his agent that he is contractually obligated for at least two more years of his TV show. Don’t do it, and he gets sued by the network. In any case, he can’t do other TV or film projects because of the contract, so he has to suck it up and go kiss the network president’s butt to either let him back on the show or graciously let him out of his contract. The president, surprisingly, doesn’t let him out of his contract. From there, Kevin decides that he’s going to move all the way across the country to New York to do theater. And Kate is all like, what?

Finally getting a call from his brother and sister after not receiving or making one himself on their shared birthday in the first episode, Randall is called by his brother and we learn that their relationship is still one of complexity and frailty. Randall is dealing with the relationship with his bio dad who is confronted by his wife on whether he really is sick. The man, a past druggie (whole reason why he gave up his son), reveals that he is off the drugs but takes his son’s money to take a bus all the way from NY back to Philly each day to feed his cat, the only thing he really has. He doesn’t want to overstay his welcome. Kevin makes arrangements with some oncologists to see if he can’t get the man healed up. He schedules an appointment. That day, as he is about to take the man to the doctor’s in a few hours, he gets a surprise knock on the door. It is his mother, a well-makeup-ed Mandy Moore, along with her husband. No, not Jack. She’s now married to Miguel, Jack’s old work friend. “Surprise! Got you again, viewer!”

Jack and Miguel 

Episode three starts with Rebecca and Miguel coming in to be greeted by Randall’s family. He tells her immediately that he found his bio dad after years of searching. Actually, she didn’t really know he had been searching, after his initial look when he was younger. She demands to meet him and goes up to the room where he’s staying (Randall’s youngest daughter’s room) to shake his hand. As soon as Randall introduces them, she asks that her son leave the two of them alone for a while and that is when we get the surprise at the beginning of the episode this time around. As it turns out, they met before a long time ago.

In what I found very akin to the opening of UP but with an even sadder twist, we see William’s ballad as a young man. He gets on the bus and rides, assumingly to and from work or home or something. On the bus, he sees a very nice young black woman. Next, he’s getting on the bus and sharing a seat with her. Next, they are coming on the bus together. His nickname Shakespeare, he writes beautiful poetry in a journal he always carries around with him. Next, we see the two of them getting on the bus strung out, the writing in his journal devolved from Founding Father’s cursive to neanderthal scribbles, drugs frying his mind. The next we see is of the two with the woman pregnant, both half passed out as they ride the line. And finally, we see him holding a motherless baby in his arms as he rides past a fire station.

As it turns out, back with Jack and Rebecca, just after the babies were born, they decided to name all of the children K names—never mind the fact that naming their three children, one black, K K K would’ve definitely got some looks, Rebecca doesn’t feel right about Randall. The other two spent time in her, but Randall is foreign to her and won’t nurse on her. Trouble bonding, as they leave the hospital she sees William looking out for his child from across the street. She takes a few days to track him through the city and finally finds him in the same place Randall finds him years later. He gives her a book of poetry by some guy named something-Randall and they make a deal that he’ll stay away forever.

Back in current time, Randall is fighting to save his life even though the doctors are only giving back bad news. He is set to tell his children who the man is and starts asking questions about his bio mother.
Meanwhile, Kevin is still in freak-out mode and gets his sister Kate to deal with everything for their move; Kate is his personal assistant. While he makes the decision to move, she didn’t want to do that. Instead, she is still involved with her fat boyfriend who hears her singing one day and thinks she should do it professionally. Side note: While I haven’t researched her that much, I think the actress playing Kate might have come off Broadway but I’m not sure. OK, back to the story. She says no and doesn’t think any more about it, until he picks her up in a limo as her chauffeur and drives her to her first gig he setup. The first gig Toby has set up for her: An old folks home where his aunt lives. He tells her how she shouldn’t be intimidated because most of the people there are either going to die in a week or have dementia and won’t know what the heck happened in less than an hour—hyperbole, obviously. He cues a CD of the instrumental of her favorite song and she does it. It starts out shaky but she gets her rhythm halfway through and we cut to these two big people trying to have sex in what looks like a closet—nothing in the room is strong enough to support them, OK, and you know that it smells like a nursing home in there so how this is ever going to work is beyond me.

Unfortunately, Kate gets a call from Kevin who is locked in his own closet hiding from an ex-girlfriend booty call who he just told he is moving across the country. Not happy, the woman is throwing stuff, causing Kevin to call for rescue by his little sister. Kate tells Toby that her twin brother will always come first and she rushes off before they have sex. She saves Kevin who tells her that she shouldn’t have left her guy and he realizes that he is impeding her process of maturing as a solo person, as well as his own growth. He decides to go to NY alone and she goes to get her man. We end this episode without a huge shock as we already got one earlier in the episode and all is moving forward.

What’s my grade? I give it a B+. This has more than a few flaws to it that I feel I should point out to you as a viewer. First, I think the most interesting story arc of the four has to be Randall’s. In the third episode, it is revealed that he was renamed from Kyle to Randall based on his bio father’s favorite poet, something his mother decided to do. I think that maybe it is because he has a story that can make an entire series all by itself, it sticks out to me. In fact, you could, at this point, do away with the other two and just follow him and his parents and the series would not only not lack in substance but might be slightly better. Again, here, I think that this show, with so many varying stories that can stand on their own, might suffer from the same condition that Pitch does: you can remove huge chunks and “crucial” aspects of the show and have the show remain nearly the same in plot and quality.

With the black guy’s story being the most compelling, the second would have to be his parents in that they are the ones that have supplied us with the plot twists the most. Looking into the past and figuring out how the family got to where they are, what’s changed and why it’s changed is like a slowly unfurling papyrus scroll, each week showing us something new and a slightly novel twist. While I have my doubts about the all-over time-jumps (could get confusing or annoying for some viewers), I do enjoy the little twists that come in each episode. My only concern there is that I wonder for how long they can keep that up and if that was a genuinely crucial part of why people enjoyed the show so much on its premiere.

The two middling, half-unnecessary story lines to me are actually of the twins Kate and Kevin. This, in no way, is about their race or dismissing their stories because they’re the white people. No, this is about the way the stories have been written, as well as the below-board circumstances surrounding the actors. OK, to start, Kevin’s storyline is practically non-existent. Yes, he wants to make a career change, but until he actually moves to NY and maybe breaks away from his sister’s shadow, the majority of what he’s done can be cut out of the show and summed up in one expository speech to his siblings and mom about what happened: I freaked out on my birthday, quit my successful TV show job against contract, and now I’m moving to NY to pursue Broadway. OK. There’s been no meat there maybe because there’s been no one outside of his family for him to latch on to. Kate has Toby who introduces us to her story. Randall has his family, his wife, and his bio dad to play off of consistently. Even their parents have each other, not to mention the doctor and Jack’s work-friend to play off of. Who does Kevin have? We got a brief scene with his agent played by Katey Sagal and that was it. He has no secondary anchor character, which opens him up to dying on that flight to NY and never being heard from again. He could literally walk upstairs like so many kids from 90s sitcoms, disappear from the show, and I wouldn’t bat an eye.

The biggest concern (yes, that was a weight joke) is not about Kevin as I’m sure they’ll staple his story to someone in NY, but for Kate. Here is where things get tricky because this is a problem that is off set but effects everything onset. See, my problem with her story is that she’s fat and that’s it. I know they’re going to play the singer angle and try to get her a recording contract and all of that in the future, but the fact that her story hinges on her weight, makes me question how far this can stretch. “What do you mean, Michael?” you ask. Well, the only true progression of her story I can see over a long haul would be for her to actually lose weight. Like, I’m wondering if it is in her contract that she does actually have to lose weight. Think of it this way, she literally started the show with labeling her food and talking about how big she is. Even if she falls in love and gets her singing contract, she still would have to lose weight for a proper emotional payoff to the viewer. This is screenwriting 101. Some will say, but what about if she just learns to accept who she is instead—and this has been the talk surrounding the show about plus-sized people learning to love their body. Eh! I tell you why that would only half-work: she has already admitted that she has a serious problem with not only who she is but with other struggles like overeating and health. This is more than a “I don’t see myself as...” but is a real problem. If she only accepts the problem and never whiffs at fixing it, it won’t be cathartic for the countless viewers who are also on the never-ending American diet. Also, and this will definitely sound like fat-shaming but as someone who has been over 260lbs in my life I really don’t care if you’re offended, but she is not simply plus-sized like, say, Ashley Graham. She’s just fat like Gabby Sidibe (and even Sidibe has lost quite a bit of weight recently). I say this because, 1) unlike real plus-sized women, she has no actual shape because the fat has swallowed it, 2) she looks at least over 250, which is unhealthy in anybody (I thought I was OK at my 267 until the pain in my back radiated out through the rest of my bone structure), and 3) when you are that big it really isn’t that difficult to lose 15lbs over the course of a year with a little determination. You want to shame me for fat-shaming, go right ahead.

Back to the show, if you have her never losing any weight, what you’ll have is a constant back and forth of how every slight and diss is about her weight, even though she has supposedly accepted her own body. Even if that disappears, the viewer will constantly have her line about how it will always be about the weight for her (can’t believe they wrote that for the character) in the back of their minds, year in and year out. This would then still be about the weight but about how everyone else/society sees the weight as opposed to the internal view which we started with, something that actually becomes more tedious than uplifting because then the viewer whether they are dealing with their own weight issues or not, can look at Kate and say, “Well, you didn’t even really try to lose the weight, so why should I feel sorry for you?” Or empathize for that matter. She has to be shown trying to do her best, and if she can’t do that, then her story already has limited payoff.

Should you be watching? With all my complaints lobbied, I will say that yes you should be watching this. This Is Us is a heartwarming family drama that has already been picked up for a full season at NBC (no worry of it being canceled) and should supply a few laughs mixed in with the awws, tears, and a few mouth-opening twists that make you say “oooo!” Though I can’t fully say that it is a family show to be enjoyed by all ages (I’d give it a 10-year-old age limit as it has talked about hard drugs and sex often), I will say that it is for a crowd that enjoyed shows like Parenthood or Gilmore Girls. This Is Us airs on NBC Tuesdays, currently at 9pm (though it started out airing at 10pm, so check your local listing).

What do you think? Have you seen This Is Us? If not, do you think you’ll check it out now? If you have, what is your favorite part? Do you think I’m being too tough/critical of Kate’s story, or too dismissive of Kevin’s? What would you like to see the show explore further? And what do you think happened to Jack in modern-day? Let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).

Check out my 5-star comedy novel, Yep, I'm Totally Stalking My Ex-Boyfriend. #AhStalking
If you’re looking for a scare, check the YA novel #AFuriousWind, the NA novel #DARKER#BrandNewHome or  the bizarre horror #ThePowerOfTen. For those interested in something a little more dramatic and adult, check out #TheWriter. Both season 1 and season 2 are out NOW, exclusively on Amazon. Stay connected here for updates on season 3 coming summer 2017. If you like fast action/crime check out #ADangerousLow. The sequel A New Low will be out in a few months. Look for the mysterious Sci-fi episodic novella series Extraordinary to premiere sometime this winter on Amazon and my blog. Join us on Goodreads to talk about books and TV, and subscribe to and follow my blog with that Google+ button to the right.

Until next time, "So, what you’re saying is, is that if I’m me and you’re you and we know that New Mexico is somewhere within this general vicinity, then us, as in we, are here?”
“Uh... uh... sure. Let’s go with that. ”

P.S. That is a wordy, verbose sign-off, not to mention complicated in its simplicity, almost like the show. Hm? I’ll think of a better sign-off next time.

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