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Why can’t This Is Us tell good stories about characters other than Randall?

A Kate-centric episode only underlines how much the show’s structure has shortchanged its characters.

This Is Us
Kate (Chrissy Metz) sometimes feels as if she’s gotten lost in her own show.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 19 through 25 is “Number Two” the ninth episode of the second season of NBC’s This Is Us.

Shortly after the blockbuster debut of This Is Us in 2016, I had lunch with a TV writer friend whose previous credits made me think he’d be a fan of the show. And, indeed, he had generally liked the pilot. But then he said something that stuck with me, when he explained why he wasn’t as enthusiastic about the overall series as I had expected he would be: “They only have enough story for Randall.”

Over the course of This Is Us’s now one and a half seasons, my friend’s prophecy has more or less come true. Randall and his family occupy one of the best shows on television, a beautiful story about a black adopted child who grew up in a white family, anchored by an Emmy-winning performance from Sterling K. Brown and no less exceptional work from Susan Kelechi Watson as Randall’s wife, Beth. Randall’s side of the show is everything family dramas can and should be.

And then there’s the rest of This Is Us, which is often good, occasionally bad, and almost always just kinda there. My friend’s predictions for Randall’s actor brother Kevin (“he’s sad he’s not getting better roles? Who cares?”) and would-be singer sister Kate (“that pilot didn’t define her by anything other than her weight”) were pretty accurate. And his characterizations of both characters have held especially true in season two, as the show has thrown Kevin into an addiction storyline and Kate into a pregnancy storyline because it doesn’t seem to know what else to do with them.

This has put a midseason trio of episodes — the Kevin-centric “Number One,” the Kate-centric “Number Two,” and the upcoming Randall-centric “Number Three” — in the weird position of essentially serving as new pilots for the Kevin and Kate characters. How are things going so far? Just imagine me waggling my hand back and forth and going, “Eh!”

“Number Two” contains great moments but only underlines how little This Is Us understands Kate beyond her most obvious character traits

This Is Us
Kate and Toby talk it out.

If you’ve watched all of This Is Us to date, tell me what you can about Kate, beyond the fact that she’s played by the terrific Chrissy Metz. The show introduced her as a character struggling with her weight, and the vast majority of her plots still revolve around that struggle in one way or another.

Otherwise, she’s rarely defined by who she is, because she’s much more often defined by how she relates to other characters. She’s Kevin’s best friend. She loved her dad. She had a love-at-first-sight thing with Toby. Only in her relationship with her mother do we get the sense that Kate is a more complicated character than “the sister.”

Season two has tried like hell to pivot away from telling stories about Kate’s weight, an effort that’s been only fitfully successful. Most of the stories involving her singing career arrive as if the writers have suddenly remembered that she wants to be a singer, and giving a woman character a pregnancy storyline on TV is far too often a sign that the writers have exhausted all their other ideas. But there have been well-executed moments in each of these stories, which has made it easier to overlook how shaky their foundation has been.

In particular, “Number Two” is probably the best Kate episode of the entire series. On the one hand, that probably sounds obvious, since, well, it’s all about Kate. But the episode also runs headlong into a potentially fraught storyline — Kate suffers a miscarriage that the “Previously On...” montage helpfully suggests might be because of her age or (sigh) weight — and mostly emerges with its head held high.

The hour definitely features stupid moments involving Toby (the show’s worst character), and nothing that happens could be classified as surprising. But Metz is good, Mandy Moore is great as her mom, and the show’s choice to link Kate and her mother via the shared loss of children they never got to meet is potent.

Plus, if the show wants to give Kate a pregnancy storyline, I’d much rather it do so via an arc about how much harder it can be for a woman of Kate’s age (37) to conceive, and then carry a child successfully to term. The previous reveal of her pregnancy was treated as something of a shocking surprise, which made it easier to write off as something This Is Us was doing out of desperation. Now that it’s a deliberate journey she and Toby are embarking on together, there’s much more room for nuance.

Still, I can never escape the feeling with Kate that the show is on the outside looking in when it comes to the character. For as good as Metz is in the role, This Is Us seems stuck observing her even though it’s often succeeded in getting into the heads of Randall and his family, as well as Randall, Kevin, and Kate’s parents. The series is a puzzle box, and because Kate carries so many pieces of the puzzle (she blames herself for her dad’s still-mysterious death), it’s very difficult to make her seem as deeply felt as the other characters. She feels like she’s still a blank, meant to be filled in later.

This Is Us set itself apart through storytelling trickery. In season two, that trickery is devouring the show whole.

This Is Us
I’m still excited for the inevitable “Annie and Tess in the future” episode.

I don’t want to pile on to This Is Us too much. Yes, it’s a cheesefest, and yes, it’s a little too fond of twists for the sake of having twists. But it’s mostly using the latitude extended by its network and studio (due to its status as a big hit show) in interesting ways. This loose trilogy of episodes, all of which circle back to the same events in the kids’ lives as teenagers — events that will somehow lead to their dad’s death — is exactly the sort of small-scale storytelling the series excels at when it’s at its best.

But the show’s willingness to play around with time and structure is also its Achilles’ heel for as long as it keeps obfuscating essential facts about the characters’ backstories. To truly understand Kate, we probably need a better sense of why she blames herself for her dad’s death. Without that, we’re left with a character who’s primarily notable for very surface-level character traits like “wants to be a singer” and “loves her fiancé.”

The closest This Is Us has come to filling in Kate’s psyche stems from its presentation of her childhood self as someone who felt perpetually overlooked by her parents in favor of her more obviously impressive brothers. “Number Two” broaches this topic in its flashbacks — again centered on Kate (played as a teenager by Hannah Zeile) and her mom doing their best to connect — but it’s harder to play around with when Kate is an adult and living on her own.

If This Is Us were a series specifically focused on Kate, her emotional needs and desire to have other people notice her for who she is could flower; as it stands, those story beats are mostly hit by having her hang out with Toby.

Really, though, a similar fate has befallen every character on This Is Us who isn’t Randall. He’s the one character who’s not particularly affected by the puzzle box nature of the flashbacks (since much of the “mystery” of his identity, which involved finding his biological father, was wrapped up in the show’s pilot). He’s the one character whose present-day storyline has plenty of room for both plot development and character growth. And he’s played by the best actor on the show. Randall isn’t just a solid character — he’s someone we haven’t seen on TV before, period, and that gives everything he does more of a heft.

In season two, This Is Us has realized as much and has essentially pivoted to being “the Randall show” at times. But it still has all these other characters hanging around the edges, waiting for definition. “Number One” and “Number Two” both try to provide that definition, sort of, but neither fully delivers. Kate, especially, is still a character in waiting, to be determined at a later date.

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on NBC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.