My TV-watching buddy Shaune says of “This Is Us”: “Even when it’s happy, it’s sad.” That contradictory statement perfectly sums up TV’s most emotionally draining show, which is up to its usual tricks in this week’s Season 3 premiere, “Nine Bucks.” Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) sit in his car after a horrible first date in 1972, but Rebecca is won over because of the way he looks at her. It’s the definition of a happy romantic scene.
But such scenes also have a tinge of sadness because we can’t isolate the happy moment like we could in a 90-minute rom-com. We know the big picture of these characters’ lives; Jack will die 26 years later from smoke inhalation (as seen in last season’s devastating Super Bowl episode), after intervening years that include both happiness and sadness, a lot of which we’ve been privy to. The genius of “This Is Us” is deceptively simple: It tells its story out of order, and that’s totally a feature, not at all a bug. Dan Fogelman’s series has devised an emotional storytelling order instead.
It also delivers on the cliché of giving something to every viewer. Shaune and his wife are drawn into the odyssey of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) trying to have a baby, whereas I wonder why they don’t adopt rather than risking Kate’s life. (No angry emails, please: New parents have explained it to me.) And Toby discarding his antidepressants in order to raise his sperm count is almost incomprehensibly idiotic.
Which isn’t to say I’m annoyed by the Kate-and-Toby arc. Toby’s action comes from a place of love, and as “Buffy” once crystallized, “love makes you do the wacky.” Even the storylines most distant from my own life draw me in. If these storytellers invented a character like me – the closest I can come is that I’d like to be like Toby — I’d perhaps turn into a puddle in my living room.
The show’s soft guitar score by Siddhartha Khosla seems to say to a viewer: “We’re feeling the same thing you are. Because we’re all human. This is us.” That music overcomes all the things that shouldn’t quite work, such as Ventimiglia and Moore playing a decade younger than their ages in those flashbacks. (But darn it, Fogelman, why couldn’t you have filmed Milo and Mandy in the carnival scene 10 years ago? Or spent a gazillion dollars to de-age them?) Then again, Young Randall looks nothing like Adult Randall, and that doesn’t bother me.
The music makes me see the Franco Harris Immaculate Reception framing mechanism – we see the Steelers’ receiver’s full day built around the well-known catch that beat the Raiders – as brilliant rather than corny. The more I watch the show, the less pretentious and the more perfect the title seems.
“This Is Us” also has some of the mystery genre in its DNA. Sometimes a mystery is so good that I don’t even try to solve it, and “This Is Us’ ” current brain-teaser could fit that bill: “Who is the woman that Old Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Old Toby and Adult Tess (Iantha Richardson) are going to visit in a (presumed) mental ward – a visit that upsets all of them, especially Tess?”
But since I’m typing about the show anyway, let’s analyze it: Based on what we know so far about the female characters, none have a super-tight connection to more than two of those three characters going to visit her.
At the end of last season, the smart money was on Deja (Lyric Ross), who in present day had just smashed the windshield of Randall’s car in frustration. In “Nine Bucks,” she wavers between “exceptional” (as Randall labels her, and which she takes to heart – but not to his face) and “dumb teenager.” Is that pair of shoes she gives Randall for his birthday really no big deal, or will the cops be coming for her in a future episode?
After “Nine Bucks,” the smart money is on Kate being the mystery woman, since Future Depressed Toby is now in the mix of the visit. But both scenarios – Deja and Kate — require a new close relationship to spring up between present day and that visit a couple decades in the future. I’m also suspicious the mystery woman could be Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd), a supposedly unstable person embarking on a romance with Kevin (Justin Hartley), who we know for sure is unstable.
Honestly, though, what gripped me while watching “Nine Bucks” is the thread referenced in its title. We know Jack has $9 for his impromptu carnival date with Rebecca, and even though 1972 dollars go a lot further than today’s dollars, I was still hanging on every expenditure right along with him. (Oh man, why did she want both the caramel apple and the hot chocolate?) Love it or think it’s too manipulative, “This Is Us” knows it’s the small things that hook us, because it’s the small things we remember about our own lives.