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This Is Us season 2 premiere: a big mystery is solved — sort of

The show replaces a mystery with a puzzle for season two. Great.

This Is Us
Jack’s back, baby.
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.

“A Father’s Advice,” the season two premiere of This Is Us, was mostly dedicated to walking back the events of the season one finale.

Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) wants to be a singer? Too bad. She stinks. Randall Pearson (newly minted Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown) wants to adopt another child? Well, maybe he should have talked about it more with his wife. Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) is starring in a Ron Howard movie? Hey, look, there’s Ron Howard in a one-shot cameo!

The episode even walked back the separation between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) Pearson back in the ‘90s — with the two vowing to face down the problems creating rifts in their marriage because that’s what married people do. (At least it took a few months for them to find their way back to each other, though those months mostly unspooled offscreen.)

There’s a world where all of this is smart. There’s probably no way that, say, Kate would become a professional singer overnight, and I cringed a bit when we first saw Randall cradling a baby, thinking the show had simply skipped to the part where he had a new, adopted child. But no! The premiere made it clear that we’re going to follow these journeys in at least some approximation of painstaking detail. This Is Us, at least, isn’t going to suddenly speed up its storytelling unnaturally.

However, there’s something a little unfulfilling about a premiere that exists mostly to negate a finale. This Is Us is a show about sitting around and feeling stuff, so it makes sense to indulge in the difficult path from point A to point B. But I did sort of feel as if the characters might have advanced further during the period between seasons. The season two premiere picked up on the Pearson siblings’ 37th birthday — around six months after the season one finale — and it felt like everybody had been waiting for the audience to come back.

This Is Us’s greatest risk has always been that its primary story engine is the idea that we don’t know the exact details of everything that befell the Pearson family between the events of the flashbacks and the events of the present — especially how Jack died. Without that information, where do the stakes for several characters (most notably Kevin, but also Kate some of the time) come from?

Well, I guess we’re about to find out if the show has more gas in its tank.

The premiere revealed how Jack died, in a way that’s meant to introduce a new mystery

As the last few moments of the “A Father’s Advice” revealed, Jack died when the Pearson home burned down when the three kids were 17 (so 20 years ago). We don’t know if he was in the house when it started to burn or ran in to rescue someone or something and got trapped, or what. But we know the big picture, for the most part.

This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman told Variety that the idea is to spend season two teasing out the exact story of how Jack came to be in that burning house — which will in turn involve reveals about how Kevin ended up with his leg in a cast and how Kate ended up with a dog. But once you graduate past the big question to much smaller questions (especially ones introduced so casually), you’re on very shaky ground.

That’s not to say This Is Us can’t pull off an engaging second season. Jack’s death clearly ruptured the Pearson family in ways its members are still struggling to understand. So there’s probably some benefit to teasing out this story a little. But if the show stretches it out too far, viewers may be tempted to say, “Oh, come on, already.”

Most of the other stuff in the episode was business as usual

Other than the Jack reveal, “A Father’s Advice” left viewers with the reassurance that This Is Us was still This Is Us.

There were plenty of tear-jerking scenes. The focus on how the three present-day Pearson siblings would have to buckle down to complete the next steps of their journeys proved that the show wasn’t going to suddenly start rocketing along at top speed. Hey, we even got further confirmation that Toby (Kate’s fiancé) is still the worst, with his super weird and territorial posturing with Kevin over whose responsibility it is to make Kate not feel like shit.

And the good stuff on this show remains very, very good. It was great to see William (Ron Cephas Jones) again, in a flashback to one of Beth’s last moments with Randall’s biological father. (William died in season one’s best episode.) The scene where Rebecca and a grown Randall talked about the emotional toll of adoption was also lovely.

But then the episode would get to a scene like the one where Kate was feeling great about how she was rejected after her singing audition because she’s not very good, not because of her size, and it would feel like the show wasn’t really sure what stories to tell about the characters who aren’t in Randall’s immediate orbit. This Is Us is always going to be a show that people watch more for its heartfelt character moments than for its plot — and that’s a good thing. But it still feels like far too many of the characters on the show are marked “to be determined.”

This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on NBC. The first season is streaming on Hulu.