‘This Is Us’ Season 3 Continues the Pearson Saga in the Past and Present

This Is Us” returns for a third season promising to give you everything near and dear about this heart-warmer. Like a blissfully cheesy chart, the new season continues following the evolution of its characters as they face life’s eternal woes: Love, parenting and hook ups that turn into serious feelings. But this show is a success because it knows how to pull off these ingredients in a way that delivers truly entertaining television. The hour just flies by. For creator Dan Fogelman the rebound can’t come soon enough following the box office catastrophe of his movie “Life Itself.” Here he’s back in his element, following the Pearson family back and forth through time.

Picking up right where season two left off, we find the Pearsons facing new personal challenges. After tying the knot last season, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) are now eager to have a baby. As the doctors tell it to them, Kate’s weight makes pregnancy a risk and Toby has a low sperm count, probably due to his anti-depressants. Kate tries to put a straight face, but the frustration is quite real. Meanwhile Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is trying to find the right way to ask Deja (Lyric Ross) if she would officially like to be adopted. But Randall is getting serious heat from his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) when she finds out Kevin (Justin Hartley) is sleeping with her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd). It’s not so much the sleeping part that bothers Beth, instead she worries for Kevin because of Zoe’s own, complicated history. The episode also cuts back in time to show us the first ever date between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), when they were mere youths who could never know the lives that would be lived by their adopted children.

Three seasons in and Fogelman has become a virtuoso at tear-jerking. The season premiere of this third outing packs it all in. Sometimes the sentimentality does make for some very good drama. The storyline of Randall and Deja has some powerful moments in this episode, in particular during one scene where he drives her to the abandoned building where he once found his biological father. Instead of becoming a typical hugfest, the scene ends with Deja rejecting Randall’s attempt at making an emotional gesture. She walks away, almost threatened by finally having a potential parent who shows real affection. Deja herself has the best scene in the episode when she walks up to her own biological father at a shop and bluntly tells him she’s not there to come back, but to let him know he’s going to miss out on her life.

The rest of the episode has all the cheese and fluff “This Is Us” fans adore and find bliss in. Zoe and Kevin struggle to keep their ongoing fling a secret. At first it seems based on nothing more than sheer physical attraction (Zoe has doubts, then gazes at Kevin’s biceps and surrenders), but Kevin later confesses he wants to ask Zoe to be his date to the premiere of a film he’s starring in (directed by Ron Howard no less). When Beth sits Kevin down for an honest chat the writing starts skirting soap opera zone. Beth warns Kevin Zoe eats men up only to spit them out. Talk about foreshadowing.

Ultimate cheesedom occurs during the whole flashback storyline involving Jack and Rebecca’s first date sometime in 1972. As Fogelman demonstrated in “This Is Us,” he has quite a grandiose idea of how attraction and first dates go. Jack sees Rebecca singing in a lounge, that’s all he needs to beg his buddy for some cash to take her out. Lucky for him, $9 was enough back then to take a girl to the carnival and buy her a candy apple. We again learn he went to Vietnam and get a quick shot for a flashback, as we always do. Does it matter that he’s broke and jobless? In Fogelmanland, never. It starts to pour, Jack can’t get Rebecca an umbrella and she admits it’s been a terrible first date, but they still lock lips. But the episode does end with a soapy cliffhanger as Jack drives to Rebecca’s, only to see her meeting a well-dressed, snarky-looking guy with flowers outside her door. We already know they end up together, so now we’re supposed to salivate at the prospect of following the juicy tale of how Jack overcame the competition.  

However, Fogelman deserves credit for using his particular brand of storytelling in this show to explore some issues you don’t regularly get in feel-good TV. Kate is forced to confront the issue of her weight, not in any shameful sense, but because doctors are telling her she has a 90% chance of failure at having a child. By the end of the episode we get the obligatory ray of hope, as she gets a call back from the clinic, and it seems they’re going to let her give it a try. There’s also a moment right before the end of the episode where Toby tosses his anti-depression pills into the toilet to flush it all down. These are the moments in “This Is Us” that give it its dramatic edge, because there’s nothing romanticized there, just pure human struggle.

Sometimes the narrative still gets too crammed in this show. In this episode the story keeps intercutting a somewhat needless storyline involving legendary football player Franco Harris and a famous Steelers versus Raiders game (which is in the background of the whole date storyline). Non-football fans might be suckered into thinking a new lead character is being introduced. And once again the show keeps hinting at a hospital visit involving all the leads, with graying hair, sometime in the future. One wonders how much longer we can endure all this teasing. But overall “This Is Us” returns with its form intact, giving its fan base what they want, while offering everyone else an hour of weekly TV full of love, hugs and tears.

This Is Us” season three premieres Sept. 25 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.