There are shows we turn to for unswerving excellence, there are shows we love because they never make any discernible attempts at quality and somewhere in the murky middle, there is NBC’s “This Is Us,” which shuffles across the spectrum like a chameleon on roller skates. “Oh, you thought we were good?” the show sneers at its audience each Tuesday night. “No, how silly of you, we’re actually quite bad.”
But then, at the precise moment you make your peace with the show as a weepy melodramatic trainwreck with no hope in sight, the ghost of “This Is Us” will re-emerge and cry in faux disbelief, “What are you talking about? We’re inventive and layered and structurally brilliant with knockout performances!” I think this is what people these days call ‘gaslighting.’
This surely is the most frustrating fandom, the uniquely painful kind that shaves years off one’s life. It requires both a boatload of faith and an equal amount of distrust. It’s the equivalent of that year Sandra Bullock won the Razzie for Worst Actress and the Oscar for Best Actress in the span of one weekend. It’s like watching Russell Westbrook chuck brick after brick every night and finally tucking your Thunder jersey away in the attic only to head back downstairs in time to see him drain the clutch game-winner. How can something so good be so bad? How can something so bad be so good?
The drama’s third season has served up some lovely, pitch-perfect episodes and some blah misses. After a midseason hiatus, “This Is Us” made its return last week in the most “This Is Us” way possible: The mediocre acting was frequently groan-worthy, occasionally moving, and all in all, perfectly average.
A year ago, it seemed impossible that the weakest storyline on “This Is Us” could be Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown, “American Crime Story”). He and Susan Kelechi Watson’s Beth (“Louie”) have frequently saved the show from descending into Sad Sack City, anchoring it with charisma and chemistry and a rare, totally functional onscreen partnership. But Randall’s campaign for a city council seat in Philadelphia, which once seemed like the show’s way of teaching him a tough lesson about his excessive righteousness, has now swallowed him whole while indulging the character’s worst tendencies.
Fortunately for him, Randall lives in a bizarro universe where the electorate is won over by spirited oratory. (Aaron Sorkin called. He wants his naïve worldview back. Also, he made some Gilbert and Sullivan reference I didn’t quite understand.) Never mind that Randall is a Philly resident by technicality, and actually lives in Alpine, NJ., which is about as far away from Philadelphia as you can get while still being in NJ.
It’s equally surprising that Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley, “Revenge”) has emerged as the third season’s strongest character, deciding to learn more about his father’s experiences in Vietnam while pursuing a relationship with the sometimes closed-off, “complicated” documentarian, Zoe (Melanie Liburd, “Dark Matter”). His portion of “The Last Seven Weeks” works nicely as a link between both of these processes, culminating in an earned, moving moment of character-growth. Kate (Chrissy Metz, “American Horror Story”), finally pregnant this season after struggling to conceive, is sidelined with a C-plot this episode, a zany quest to retrieve her husband’s Star Wars action figures after accidentally donating them, but Metz makes the most of it.
So where does “This Is Us” go from here? Who knows. There are still several loose ends to tie up, a flash-forward mystery yet to be resolved and, from Kevin’s Vietnam digging, a potential long-lost family member waiting in the wings for his story to be told. All that’s certain is that the remaining episodes of this season will be a little excellent and also a bit terrible. So let’s buckle in: After all, this is a show that killed a character via Crock Pot, and did so beautifully.