‘This Is Us’ Season 4 Introduces New Lives Into Its Vast and Moving Canvas

NBC’s “This Is Us” returns to weave its spell for a fourth season. It’s quite impressive how creator Dan Fogelman has found a storytelling style that works as it refreshes itself in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky. The show’s plot can endlessly add new layers because it’s about the flow of life. People are born or they meet every single day, and season four goes deep into the future this time, while still catching up with events in the past established last seasons. 

We begin in the 70s where Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) have returned from their whirlwind road trip to California. They did not quite find Rebecca’s dream of getting into the music business, but their bond is definitely solidified. Now Jack has to face that one fearful step in many a serious relationship: Meeting her parents. The stakes are high because Jack is a penniless Vietnam veteran while Rebecca’s parents are pretty well-off. To at least look presentable our hero goes to a men’s store where a cashier cuts him some slack and lets him borrow a jacket. Then the show introduces us to three new storylines, one involves a modern-day soldier named Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison), who is haunted by what she sees stationed in what looks like Afghanistan. She promises to help a local woman and her family if she identifies a wanted bomb maker, but an ensuing airstrike that destroys the village shatters Cassidy’s consciousness and she returns to her husband and son with PTSD. Another new storyline jumps into the farther future and introduces us to Jack Damon (Blake Stadnik), a visually-impaired musician who after a hungover morning meets a waitress named Lucy (Auden Thornton). Sparks fly and in finding love with Lucy, Jack begins to compose new, powerful material. Then there’s Malik (Asante Blackk), a high school junior struggling with raising a baby while working at an auto shop with his father Darnell (Omar Epps). Desperate to make better money, Malik is tempted by the local drug game.

The multiple story threads are becoming refreshed with new vines to follow, but what has not changed at all is the ability of “This Is Us” to be ever so moving. This show is a ratings mammoth because it understands how to tug at our heart strings, continuously evoking the audience’s desires for true love, genuine friendship and fateful connections over coffee. It’s corny yes, but not insincere. The season premiere is actually quite impressive in how it deals with topics like class and war. Jack having to meet Rebecca’s parents has some touching moments, like when the cashier at the men’s store lets Jack take a jacket because the girl he’s doing this for must be worth it. But the dinner scene itself has some strong, raw tension as the parents eye Jack with upper class suspicion, asking where his own parents are from, or what he does for a living. He delivers a poignant speech about being protective of his younger brother, who died in Vietnam. But just when we assume he’s broken the ice and proven himself, the WASP dad leans over to him after dinner and warns that he’ll never let an obviously haunted man do anything with his daughter. Issues of class and marriage are rarely explored in primetime, where every family or marriage tends to live in high-end houses. In “This Is Us” the roots of the Pearson family, on whom the whole saga rests, have unique origins. Jack and Rebecca have the required cute moments, like kissing for the first time in a car, or wanting to see each other every day forever. But the storm their relationship will have to endure appears to be more down to earth and relatable than you’d expect on TV.

It is not until the last few minutes of the season premiere that we even see the show’s famous main players. Most of the episode is all about the newcomers with a few major revelations thrown near the end as to how they connect to the wider canvas. It’s a grand ensemble Fogelman throws in this season, including director M. Night Shyamalan as a yet undefined personality in the Hollywood circles where Kevin (Justin Hartley) navigates. Among the new, prime characters, Jack, played by an actor who does have Stargardt disease, follows the show’s tradition of meeting the love of his life through unexpected circumstances, namely the breaking of a plate which leads him to eat at a diner where he meets Lucy. She hears about his passion to make music, they make love, he eventually proposes and the episode climaxes with him hitting the stage to sing the song inspired by their story. But the great clincher is when we realize through the introduction of his name that he is the grown child of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan). We see the couple holding an infant Jack at the doctor’s office, learning that he is indeed blind.

Cassidy’s story is handled with tact and the use of PTSD as a story device is never cheap. She’s a strong network TV representation of veterans returning from combat and dealing with the lingering after effects at home. There’s actually a quite powerful moment where her husband complains about the cost of a water heater, and the amount is the same U.S. troops paid Afghan villagers for information or collateral damage. It provokes a flashback that makes Cassidy accidentally strike her son and then seek counseling. It’s during one of her counseling sessions that her storyline connects to the Pearsons when Uncle Nicky (Griffin Dunne) throws a chair through the window of where the session is taking place. Kevin takes a call in L.A. about the incident and prepares to head over to bail out Nicky. We assume this will bring him in contact with Cassidy. 

The smoothest link between the new characters and the ones we’ve been following for years happens when Malik, after being convinced by his father not to get into drug running, attends a friend’s barbecue. While cooking some burgers Malik is introduced to none other than Deja (Lyric Ross), adopted daughter of Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). We cut to Deja coming back home from the barbecue and Randall notices the big smile on her face. 

So these are the new threads to follow, but in true “This Is Us” fashion, it’s never too confusing. Because the key to the show is the way generations experience similar phases and emotions in their own, unique ways, the show always feels like a collage of family memories. It captures the essence of wondering where we came from, while pondering where we’re going. This series does it so well that it’s hard not to be moved, at least just a little.

This Is Us” season four premiered Sept. 24 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.