This fall’s television landscape is peppered with new shows trying to capture the magic of “This Is Us.” As if by some simple mathematical equation they could unlock the right balance of emotion, humor, and beauty of the best series on broadcast TV. But there isn’t a formula or a spell, or even just luck. “We have really great writers,” Dan Fogelman bragged in front of a crowd of enthusiastic fans at the season premiere screening in Hollywood.
The Pearson family returned Tuesday night in an episode (“Ave Maria“) that weaves through time. But the present day begins as each of the previous seasons. It is the Big Three’s 38th birthday, and each has seen some changes over the months since last we saw them.
Kevin (Justin Hartley) attempts to hide his relationship with Zoe (Melanie Liburd) from her cousin/his sister-in-law, Beth (Susan Kelechi-Watson). The two met at Kate and Toby’s wedding, and a glimpse in that finale caught them on a plane bound for Vietnam in some future event that hasn’t happened yet. Kevin hit devastating lows last season in a performance that should have garnered Hartley an Emmy nomination. If this episode is any indication, Kevin is now enjoying the best times of his life. But will he know how to handle happiness?
Kelechi-Watson has also had opportunities to grow as Beth over the past year. In “Ave Maria,” she gets to be a little bit of Scary Beth, but in the endearing and funny way that proves the actress is underrated for her comedic timing. As great as she is opposite her TV husband, Susan Kelechi-Watson and Justin Hartley are amazing scene partners. There really should be a buddy cop movie in their future.
Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) are moving forward in their efforts to have a baby, setting up an appointment with the best fertility doctor in town. But the news isn’t at all what they – and particularly Kate – were hoping to hear, and we get our first glimpse into what sets off the deep depression we know is coming for Toby. Metz delivers some very powerful moments, but Sullivan is equally as moving. His scenes are mostly non-verbal as he quietly supports his new bride.
Beth and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) have also been busy over the summer. Things were difficult after Déjà (Lyric Ross) sat and listened while her mother gave away all parental rights. Ross joins the series as a regular this year and she is a welcome addition. “Ave Maria” catches up with Randall and Déjà taking a long car ride to have a discussion he has been planning for weeks. The time has come to make a decision on her long term placement. Randall and Beth are ready to file for adoption, but he wants it to be Déjà’s choice. The carefully plotted conversation doesn’t go the way he hoped, but Brown and Ross have such a lovely father/daughter connection. It reflects the relationship between Jack and Kate, brimming with perfect, unconditional, non-judgmental love.
This new direction with Déjà, though, is the one place season three may have taken a slight misstep. Back in May, the teenager had been growing increasingly sullen in the weeks after permanently separating from her mother. She slipped away during the wedding reception and took a bat to Randall’s very expensive car. We revisit that moment only briefly when Beth and Randall discover her and she is immediately remorseful. The vandalism is never touched on again after she goes to therapy and settles into life as a Pearson. It was such a pivotal moment in the finale last year that tossing it so casually into the past feels a bit like cheating. Yet, Déjà is a kid we want to root for, so perhaps it’s better not to dwell on those bad choices.
All of these present day events are punctuated with the long-awaited story of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) first date. It was 1972, the night of the so-called Immaculate Reception, when Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Franco Harris made an impossible grab and scored a game-winning (and highly controversial) touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. Jack and Rebecca’s date borders on disaster. It makes an odd kind of sense, considering what an enviable marriage they will eventually have. Fresh back from Vietnam, Jack has only a few dollars in his pocket. But he doesn’t want to admit this to the girl he has already decided is The Girl.
Ventimiglia and Moore get to step back from some of the more dramatic elements that await them, and sink into something that is sweet and lovely. It is a nice respite before we start to dig deeper into Jack’s past and his time in Vietnam.
“Ave Maria” is exactly the type of episode we have come to count on from “This Is Us.” With laugh-out-loud moments of hilarity and emotional beats that always avoid falling into full-blown melodrama, season three is off to a very good start. The coming episodes will surely lead to trying times for some, but the journey will undoubtedly be worth taking.