After the dip in quality in the third season, This Is Us‘s return is hugely engrossing and cohesive
Starring Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan, Jon Huertas, Niles Fitch, Logan Shroyer, Hannah Zeile, Mackenzie Hancsicsak, Parker Bates, Lonnie Chavis, Eris Baker, Faithe Herman, Lyric Ross, Asante Blackk, and Griffin Dunne
Created by Dan Fogelman, the family-centred This Is Us captured audience’s hearts in its first two seasons, as it deftly juggled multiple timelines, an ambitious number of actors and created mystery through critical omission of information. With these first two instalments mainly dealing with the mystery, tragedy and fallout of patriarch Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death, the third season struggled to correctly balance the light and dark of the programme, leading to an overly serious tone that had an inappropriately large focus upon swathes of Jack’s backstory that seemed unnecessary for a show that seemed determined to move past the shadow of his life and find new footing. Fortunately, Season 4 strikes a nice balance between the forward momentum of the present with flashbacks that enhance the current plotline, as well as flashforwards that tantalise and excite viewers with the prospect of drama still to come.
While Season 3 stretched Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) to near-breaking point, Season 4 teases viewers with the idea of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) falling apart. Flashforwards that suggest that the pair are estranged enhance the growing sense of distance between the two in the present. Unlike the aforementioned pairing, Kate and Toby aren’t at each other’s throats, but cracks are starting to form. When the kind next-door neighbour Gregory (Timothy Omundson) is present for Kate more than Toby, who has recently become obsessed with the gym, it starts to become obvious that Toby is unable to provide for Kate and Jack in the way that they need. Kate is also burdened with the return of her own negative self image now that Toby is focussed upon losing weight himself, as well as caring for a child with additional needs like Jack.
Amidst this drama, the show also finds time to explore Kate’s relationship with Rebecca (Mandy Moore), both past and present, as the two grow closer as adults than they have been before. Details about Kate’s first relationship with the highly unpredictable Marc (Austin Abrams) are also hugely captivating and give teenaged Kate (Hannah Zeile) a great deal more to sink her teeth into than before.
Season 4 gives us both the best and the worst of Randall. In his position as councilman in Philadelphia, the audience sees the selfless way that he puts measures in place to assist his constituents, as well as his hardworking attitude. However, after a traumatic event that shakes Randall and his family to their core, we also see his stubbornness and his repression, as he dogmatically refuses to acknowledge the resurgence of past anxieties that threaten to topple him over the edge, and are also echoed in daughter Tess (Eris Baker).
In a highly innovative episode, “After the Fire”, Randall is challenged to imagine how his life might have been different had Jack survived the fateful Superbowl night all those years ago, and both the Best Case and Worst Case scenario play out painfully, though reveal more about Randall than they do about anything else. Namely, his unerring perception of himself as being smarter than everybody around him, and knowing what’s best for them. Ultimately, Randall’s incredible perception turns vitriolic as he spews the exact words that he knows will hurt Kevin the most in an explosive showdown that reshapes the Pearson family dynamic.
That’s not to say, of course, that Randall is not irredeemable: This Is Us is far too intelligent a show to paint any character in such definite shades, and one thing that it consistently manages well is being able to balance character strengths and flaws even within the span of one conversation, and Randall is played incredibly sympathetically by Brown as he unravels and crumbles under the immense pressure that is placed upon him during the season.
Kevin (Justin Hartley) also gets a huge focus throughout the season as he struggles to find his own place and his own purpose. Compared to his relatively more settled siblings, Kevin has always found it difficult to know himself and what he is capable of, and in the previous seasons has come across as quite conceited and self obsessed, though this season he enjoys some meaningful development on this front as he becomes a rock for uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) as he attends AA meetings, as well as fostering a relationship with Nicky that wasn’t possible for him with Jack. It’s an important and meaningful moment that allows a great deal of healing and forgiveness from Kevin, as he also provides a stable, fun distraction for Rebecca from her ongoing health woes.
Even though, arguably, much more of dramatic import happens to both Kate and Randall, Hartley’s performance really soars here, allowing Kevin to appear grounded and nuanced throughout. There are many complicated emotions that go on much more quietly throughout this collection and Hartley comfortably sells this with ease.
Of course, after the surprise reveal at the end of Season 3 that it was Rebecca who was dying in the future, much of Season 4 sees the Big Three shaken by the news of Rebecca’s worsening health, as she begins to experience so-called “senior moments” and become increasingly confused. This is the backdrop that serves as the catalyst for much of the drama, both uniting the siblings before a devastating rift forms between them.
There are many episodes in Season 4 which may be series’ bests, and really highlight the magic of the storytelling on offer. For one, the way that The Big Three’s stories are tied together through three consecutive episodes entitled “A Hell of A Week” Parts 1, 2 and 3 respectively, in which the show explores the same week from each of Randall, Kevin and Kate’s perspectives, before drawing the three together for an intimate phonecall in which they return to their roots at their family cabin. It’s a touching moment, and one that really highlights that one of the most touching aspects of watching This Is Us is seeing these three characters interact as adults, when the audience have observed them since they were little children. Seeing the way that the three lean upon each other in times of intense stress is massively powerful.
Then, there’s a deceptively simple episode towards the end of the season focussed upon Rebecca’s love for New York City, both when the Big Three were children, then again in the aftermath of Jack’s death and finally as she and her family come to terms with her diagnosis and deterioration. Her obsession with going to the Met and re-experiencing one of the experiences of her youth is hugely touching, and seeing how Rebecca has grown and changed along with her children and changing circumstances is hugely poignant. It’s easy as a human being to let the tide of life wash you along, and forget about just how far you have come, but this episode brilliantly illustrates the importance of those small moments.
Critically, Season 4 shifts the focus back to our present characters, instead of spending overly long focussing upon the past. These flashbacks are used merely to enhance our understanding of the present day situation, instead of offering new, weighty plot information, and the flashforwards merely increase the narrative tension of what is transpiring in the present day. It’s these characters that the audience have really come to care for, and it’s a vital realignment to ensure the enduring success of the series.
Season 4 is a return to form for This Is Us, which hit a rocky, slightly listless, patch in its third outing. Consistently emotional and engaging, This Is Us is only becoming more engrossing as time progresses, boasting a powerful and explosive finale that dramatically changes the status quo moving forwards, along with a gamechanging bombshell, giving Season 5 very large shoes to fill.
This Is Us is available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime Video