"The Big Three," the second episode of This Is Us, isn’t an all-time great hour of television or anything, but it’s a reassuring hour of television, especially for those of us who were a bit suspicious of the first episode’s big twist.
Looked at from one angle, "The Big Three" is just a solid episode of a family drama. The characters go through tiny real-life conflicts, and it believably continues many of the stories set out in the pilot.
But it’s also a nice look at how the show will operate structurally, and without having to hide the twist at every turn, it can actually give those stories something of an arc. I’m not all in on This Is Us, not quite yet, but "The Big Three" went a long way toward assuaging my fears.
The This Is Us pilot reduced the characters to their most one-dimensional selves
The biggest problem with the pilot of This Is Us, as I explained after it aired, was that trying to bury the twist reduced all of the show’s characters to the most one-dimensional versions of themselves.
This was most evident in the story of Kate (Chrissy Metz), who is struggling to lose weight. Seemingly every line she had dealt with her weight issues. While this is sort of a pilot thing (i.e., it’s pretty common to have characters frequently state their motivations over and over), it felt as if it were reducing Kate entirely to a function of her weight, rather than making her weight just another thing about her character.
But you could also see it pop up in the other storylines. Kevin (Justin Hartley) could be named Frustrated With Work instead. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) is Pregnant. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) is Supportive Husband. Only Randall (Sterling K. Brown) got more than one note to play, in his search for the biological father who abandoned him. (That said, much of his nuance might be attributable to just how good Brown is as an actor.)
But all of this was in service of hiding the show’s big twist: Jack and Rebecca’s storyline actually takes place in the 1980s, and they are the parents of the other three main characters, who are more or less triplets. (Randall is adopted but was born on the same day as the other two and raised at the same time as them.)
With that business out of the way, "The Big Three" can get down to the harder work of explaining what kind of TV show This Is Us is going to be. And the answer is: a little sappy, occasionally melodramatic, and surprisingly intent on developing an elaborate backstory. Those first two more or less mark the show as a typical family drama. But it’s the last that might end up setting This Is Us apart.
This Is Us cribbing from Lost makes more sense after episode two
The problem with all family dramas is one of stakes. How do you get the audience to care about what are, ultimately, pretty trivial problems? Whether Kevin is able to have a rewarding acting career is the sort of dilemma that can be hard to get viewers to invest in. After all, very, very few of us will ever be the stars of terrible sitcoms we hate being in.
The trick, usually, is to go universal. So, for instance, Kevin’s career worries could be translated into more generalized career worries. We might not all be concerned about making good TV, but many of us are concerned about having a job we find interesting or rewarding. Similarly, Kate’s struggles with her weight can easily turn into the more universal story of anyone who’s felt self-conscious because of something they don’t like about themselves (a pivot "The Big Three" makes).
But This Is Us is doing a little with universal stories and a little bit with something even more unexpected: It’s trying to make the show a little bit like Lost.
As it turns out, the material with Jack and Rebecca in the 1980s will hop around throughout the childhood of the three siblings. This episode hops to when the kids are around 8 years old and focuses on how Jack and Rebecca feel disconnected from each other. And then the final scene of the episode layers in another story turn — sometime between that scene and the 2016 present, Rebecca and Jack’s marriage ended, and she remarried one of his friends, Miguel.
(Possible spoilers follow in this paragraph: I should state here that the version of the This Is Us pilot provided to critics contained a line about Jack dying. It was cut from the broadcast version — either to preserve the Miguel twist or to keep everybody’s options open when it came to seeing Milo Ventimiglia in old-age makeup.)
This is a smart idea, I think. Every family in the world has its own elaborate "mythology," of sorts, a complicated backstory of tradition and ritual and tale spinning that explains who that family is, both to themselves and to outsiders. This Is Us is just wedding that very basic idea to the storytelling structure of Lost — complete with flashbacks to the characters’ pasts.
Again, I don’t know if this will work completely. The storytelling in the present day still needs a little work to up the dramatic stakes and invest viewers. But "The Big Three" suggests, at the very least, that This Is Us has more going on than its big pilot twist.