This Is Us: “Changes” gets it right tonally, but loses the plot on pacing

This Is Us
“Changes”
6.7/10

Dir. Anne Fletcher
Wri.: Kevin Falls

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Last week in my inaugural This Is Us recap/review, I remarked how This Is Us had, much to my relief, handled its new COVID reality pretty well, even if I might welcome the 90’s flashbacks that much more in order to give me some time away from the utter bummer that is our current reality. It’s been part of the show’s tendency to always pleasantly surprise me by being a little bit more self-aware than I give it credit for. This week, it presented the COVID context with much more confidence; after its conspicuous introduction in the premiere week that couldn’t help but verge on clumsy at times, covering up Rebecca’s episode in a so-so manner, the pandemic is now simply part of the Pearsons’ lives. Kate and Toby joke about what masks to wear to meet a prospective birth mother. Kevin works out in the garage. Randall’s office is empty.

Like many aspects of this episode, the pandemic plot now feels lived-in — ironic for an episode that focuses so much on the turmoil of pubescent changes, both with the eighth grade Big Three (hello, Lonnie Chavis, Parker Bates and Mackenzie Hancsiscak! You’re all tall and hilarious!) and in Tess, who is now finding her voice in a way that might feel familiar-yet-cringeworthy to anyone who was on Tumblr between 2010 and 2014.

Indeed, the chemistry between the actors present — unfortunately, there were a lot of key players that felt left out of last night’s episode — was one that reminded me of why This Is Us is such a lovely, warm bath to slide into at the end of the day, particularly during “these trying times” (hello from Toronto, where virus spread is out of control)! And we did indeed see some much-needed, clearly demonstrated character development in a way that finally felt evenly balanced among the Big Three.

There’s always a “but” (or in my case, a “still”).

Still, this episode felt profoundly dull, meandering a bit too much and waiting mainly until the third act to bring out the goods. Last week’s two-hour episode was a slow burn, whereas this was more like an oven pre-heating.

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In many good ways and a few so-so ways, this episode feels like a throwback to Season One. For one thing, the show has remembered once again that Kevin is an in-demand celebrity (while managing to add some depth to the fact that he’s essentially only known for being ripped — a plot point used for humour in Season One). In the past, Jack and Rebecca are fretting once again about their kids growing up, although as the Big Three gain more autonomy, their parents are rendered more as supporting characters, both merely assigned to cheer them on in loving, but perhaps misguided ways. And, most wonderfully, Randall and Beth are back to their old, warm dynamic that made them such a beautiful match in Season One. I don’t know why the writers felt the need to make Randall and Beth a constant source of stress to me, but we finally feel somewhat out of the woods with that marriage, which is good, because damn it, Randall needs someone.

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Nevertheless, there are elements of the episode that feel like Season One in a lesser way — one that is less mature with flatter characters. The lack of interaction between the Big Three should probably come as no surprise — there’s a global pandemic and they’re forty and don’t need to be calling each other constantly — but with virtually no interaction between even the power duo of Kate and Kevin, it feels like there’s no family through-line. And as much as I’m glad we’re getting so much focus on Tess, I’m worried that the show will continually forget about Annie — or worse, give her the Randall treatment of setting her up as the “good kid” while Tess works through her (very justified) angst. Lasty, this reminded me of Season One most in that there was a criminal lack of Rebecca. She only shows up in the 90s and essentially plays the role of concerned, slightly naggy housewife. That said, I actually will applaud the show for resisting the urge to make it all about Jack. If I have to endure an episode where Rebecca is out of focus, but not because the focus is on Jack, I’ll take it. I don’t hate Jack as much as some viewers do, but it’s probably a sign of confidence that This Is Us can create emotional resonance in the third act without a rousing Jack Pearson monologue.

All the Big Three’s stories in this episode were equally satisfying, even though Kate didn’t have something that directly tied to her childhood plot (which I don’t think is necessary and in fact the “all three characters are experiencing a parallel at the same time” can get quite exhausting). Kate’s and Toby’s was a light dose of comic relief, and one that felt like the two could finally have a disagreement without it turning into a referendum on their relationship. And the real superstar of the episode was Lonnie Chavis as Randall. I have to give him a lot of credit; Chavis is only 12, playing 13 and, frankly, dealing with material that would be heavy for a 13-year-old as well. Chavis has been very outspoken on social media this summer about the covert racism he’s experienced even as a small child, so he’s especially heartbreaking in the scene where Randall has to listen to Kate’s friend Toni say she’s always wanted to kiss “someone like him.” It’s gross, dehumanizing, and a remarkable display of how trauma isn’t always from the obvious stuff.

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Kevin’s present-day plot is much weaker until the final act due primarily to the pacing. At first it felt like an irritating and arbitrary addition of tension between him and Madison in order to tease out a negative fate for their relationship. Only in the final few scenes did it become a plot with any real depth, one about Madison’s heartbreaking struggles with her eating disorder (and as someone who has lived with disordered eating and body image issues, all of the points she listed about getting weighed or reminding yourself to eat are incredibly relatable), as well as Kevin’s own body image issues and his addiction to fitness. One problem, though, is that we’ve known Madison has an eating disorder since the beginning of the series, but Kevin’s addiction has pretty much come out of nowhere and, again, we don’t see the roots of this in young Kevin until the final montage. So when Kevin starts talking about how hard it is for him, at first it seems like a gross way for him to compare the pressure to be ripped to living with an ED that almost destroys your organs. Which is a shame, because nothing Kevin said in that speech is really wrong.

But perhaps the bigger problem I have with Kevin/Madison is that we’ve seen this before — Kevin learns to love (and let go of) a woman whose complications he cannot fix or charm his way through. Maybe what I”m waiting for is for Kevin and Madison’s relationship to have that lovely, lived-in quality we now see in Kate and Toby and have seen once again in Beth and Randall. Even Rebecca and Miguel, in “Forty,” finally demonstrated a degree of intimacy that indicated that they do, indeed, enjoy being married to each other (another part of why this Rebecca-light episode stung). With Kevin and Madison, this stage of vulnerability and opening themselves up to one another is natural for the beginning of a relationship, but it feels exhausting because we’ve seen Kevin do this numerous times before with different women. And it doesn’t feel so much like Kevin’s third or fourth try at love, but rather the writers’ third or fourth try at a plot for him that works.

Nevertheless, I can’t entirely shit on this episode, which was a lovely way to spend an evening and filled me with hope that 2020 could be the year the Pearsons start to own their shit.

In summary:

The good:

  • I can’t say enough about Lonnie Chavis, but I also have to give it to Parker Bates who is really starting to marry the mannerisms of an excitable kid with the confident body language of Justin Hartley.
  • While Jack was minimal in this episode, I thought Milo Ventimiglia’s performance had a lovely, understated quality to it that was one thousand times more welcome that Jack Pearson monologuing in a chapel.
  • Kate’s scary tooth mask had my husband and I in hysterics. Episodes like “Forty” make you forget how funny this show can be.
  • That Kevin could actually acknowledge both that Jack and Rebecca were a bit clueless and that they were a wonderful couple and great parents shows a bit more maturity on the show’s part too.
  • The granddaughter and grandfather plot was cute, and fairly predictable in terms of leading to where Laurel might be.

The bad:

  • Not every plot has to be about Rebecca’s angst as an understimulated housewife, but damn this show basically made her Marge Simpson.
  • Uh, there’s no way those pancakes were gluten-free. They were puffed up like real wheat, baybeeee.

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I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.

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