Man, second seasons can be tough. Some shows thrive—witness the glorious Season Two premiere of NBC’s The Good Place. Some shows falter—the second season collapse of Lifetime’s UnReal still smarts. And some shows muddle through—I don’t think anyone is waiting with bated breath to find out what happens when CBS’s Man with a Plan comes back on October 24.
This is Us returns as last season’s number one new show. The pressure is high; NBC’s family drama is pretty much viewed as the savior of network TV. And you could almost feel the nervous energy in every cast member’s performance. Sterling K. Brown is now Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. Mandy Moore is now much more than a former teen idol. Milo Ventimigila’s Jack is the iconic dad we all want.
The writers seem to be settling in on finding the characters’ rhythm again. Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) has always been one of my favorites, but it didn’t quite track with me that she would lose it in front of the adoption specialist because she was so angry with her husband. (Although I did adore the fake smoking in frustration. I need to try fake eating chocolate when I’m stressed.)
With the season premiere, This Is Us also leans into some of its most controversial aspects. Toby (Chris Sullivan) never bothered me like he did so many viewers but, oh my, is he annoying in “A Father’s Advice.” Feeling pushed aside by Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) relationship with Kevin (Justin Hartley), Toby becomes increasingly petulant as the hour progresses.
Most questionably, though, the series leans into the mystery surrounding Jack’s death, which is such an odd and maudlin direction to take. At its core, This is Us is about how the past informs the present and how family truly is the tie that binds. That Kate feels responsible for her father’s death is something to explore. Creating this trumped-up mystery about how Jack died isn’t. The show appears to solve the mystery when a grieving Rebecca (Mandy Moore) pulls up to the charred remains of the family home with Jack’s personal effects in a plastic bag in the back seat. But the revelation leads to more questions than answers: If Jack did in fact die in a fire that appears to be an active recovery scene, how does Rebecca already have his wedding ring and watch, and why don’t they seem damaged from the fire? Where has Kevin been that Rebecca has clearly had time to return from the morgue and he still doesn’t know his father is dead? Is the fire a red herring? Did Jack die some other way? I have to say I’m more annoyed than intrigued that I have these questions.
Plus, This Is Us leans into its emotionally manipulative aspects. “A few months from now, everything will be back to normal,” Rebecca tells Jack after he’s just confessed that he has a big problem with alcohol. I mean, we all know this isn’t true.
Hey, wait, stop playing the music, nobody else got the loud music! I still have more to say. (Yeah, I’m never going to get over Brown’s Emmy speech being cut off.)
Alright, let’s talk about what I did like about the premiere. It’s a nice symmetry having the season begin with the Big Three’s 37th birthday when the series premiere was about their 36th. But did Kevin and Kate even call Randall (Brown) on his birthday? Those kids playing the teenage Randall, Kate and Kevin are fantastic. They capture the nuances of their adult counterparts’ speech inflections and body language. My biggest gripe with the series last season is that it never seemed to know what to do with Kate if her storyline wasn’t focused on her weight, so I loved it when the casting director told her, “I don’t care what size dress you wear. You’re not good enough.” Here’s hoping the show never sends Kate to a fat camp again. And I’m totally on board with continuing to weave the now deceased William (Ron Cephas Jones) into the story.
This is Us is not quite perfectly imperfect as the show returns for its sophomore season, but it remains a compelling watch. Now, for some reason, I feel the need to shop at T.J. Maxx.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .