‘This Is Us’: The Pearsons’ Journey Is Powerfully Impacted by Current Events in Two-Hour Season 5 Premiere
No show has premiered in 2020 fully justifying its name like “This Is Us.” NBC’s crowning network achievement becomes something more mature and strikingly relevant in its fifth season. It is already a cultural staple, developing an extremely loyal following and making showrunner Dan Fogelman a powerhouse. While it has surely developed a reputation for being a tearjerker, there is something to be said for a show that seeks to be as moving as “This Is Us” consistently is. Season five makes no secret about wanting to indeed be about us as we are now.
In a two-hour season premiere that seems to breeze by, the past and present continue to swirl around the evolving experiences of the Pearsons. Yet the Pearsons’ are now sharing our own collective experiences as they grapple with Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. But first the major drama, which picks up right from where season four ended as Kevin (Justin Hartley) is informed by one-night stand Madison (Caitlin Thompson) that she is pregnant with twins, his twins. The news is still bittersweet because Kevin has fallen out with Randall (Sterling K. Brown) after their clashes last season revolving around unresolved childhood memories and treatment for their mother, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. With the sudden arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is now socially distancing even as they prepare to collectively commemorate their 40th birthdays. No matter, Kevin soon shares the news with his sister Kate (Chrissy Metz) and her husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan), who are themselves waiting for news from an adoption agency to see if they have any matches. With Randall originally keeping a distance, and watching attentively with wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) the BLM protests erupting after the killing of George Floyd, Kevin, Kate and Toby gather a cabin where Rebecca has quarantined with Miguel (Jon Huertas).
But, of course, this is merely what’s going on in the present. The threads of the past connect through moments involving Randall’s father, William (Jermel Nakia), who we see in 1980 living with Randall’s mother, Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes). Their relationship seems idyllic until the episode cuts to Laurel on the floor, apparently dead from an overdose as the police threaten to call child services on William, who flees with baby Randall. William had given Laurel heroin to deal with her post-birth pains, and was wrecked by guilt. Here is the great mystery of Randall’s life. He has never been sure about what transpired after William left him at the doorstep of a firehouse. By comparison, the storyline involves Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca going to the hospital to give birth, with Jack crossing paths with William in a chapel as both men endure different kinds of personal stressors from the potential loss (or in William’s case, abandonment) of their babies. William asks God for forgiveness for leaving Randall and Jack prays for Rebecca and their triplets to survive.
The two-part premiere, collectively titled “Forty,” arrives as a comforting reminder in a way that everyone is living this particular moment in history. Like the famous “The West Wing” episode which aired soon after 9/11, “Isaac and Ishmael,” what Dan Fogelman achieves with “Forty” is a unique form of pop time capsule. While the Pearsons remain impacted from the events of last season, their lives are also now directly affected by the world as it changed in 2020. Kevin and Madison quarantine and ponder renting a large house where Madison might safely have a room to herself, but they decide on Kevin staying in her guest room. Randall and Beth are shocked when Tom Hanks gets Covid (weren’t we all?). When Kevin tells Kate and Toby about Madison’s pregnancy it’s in Kate’s lawn, with enthusiastic “air hugs.” Later Madison will have a fall at Rebecca and Miguel’s cabin, and as we wait breathlessly to know if the babies are ok (and they are), she and Kevin have the show’s first real scene where everyone wears pandemic masks. There it is, forever stamped in pop TV history. When this crisis has passed we will be able to look back at this season and feel the warmth of a show that was there for us.
The most powerful sections of “Forty” are not about Covid-19, but about this past summer’s intense season of protest. Black Lives Matter has given the show a perfect moment to explore key issues by using the characters themselves. Randall and Beth express the united trauma of watching George Floyd’s death and feeling the anger fueling the street marches. But in an even finer manner, Fogelman’s writing uses the dynamics in the Pearson family to discuss American race relations. While watching the news Randall gets texts from Kate, showing photos of her and Toby at a march with baby Jack, then followed by an awkward question of what Black causes she should send donations to. Later at the cabin Kate will approach Randall and express sympathy because of “everything that’s happening.” Randall can only look confused, and slightly annoyed, at how his adoptive sister talks to him about these issues as if being Black makes him a near stranger in this moment. Randall admits he never felt the courage to speak up about police brutality at the family table. Being the only Black sibling, he was afraid of rattling everyone. It’s a strikingly powerful metaphor for the United States as expressed through two characters in a popular TV show. Randall will end the episode telling his white therapist (Pamela Adlon) that he will now seek a Black one, because there are things he simply has not been able to open up about in a certain setting.
The moments in 1980 also connect the struggles of the past to the present. William and Laurel discuss Black rights with friends and how the government has knowingly brought in drugs to the inner cities. William gives Laurel drugs to ease her pain not because they are stereotypical junkies, but because Laurel fears going to a hospital due to her past record as a drug user. The system entraps communities and leads them to make the kind of drastic choices William makes when he decides to leave Randall at the firehouse.
Fogelman does make sure to keep intact what makes “This Is Us” irresistible to even the hardest heart. Kevin and Randall have a talk of sorts, with Kevin giving Randall the news about Madison and their bond slightly shining through. Rebecca gets lost for a few scenes due to her meds not going well with an antihistamine she takes (Randall calls this one). But the police find her and all is well. You can also sense the collective cheer when Toby gets a call from the adoption agency announcing they’ve found a match for him and Kate. There’s little trace of last season’s tension in the relationship resulting from their frustration over baby Jack’s blindness. But although this is merely the season premiere, it ends with a shocker as we return to 1980, to that moment where the paramedics are trying to revive Laurel and indeed, she is alive. Randall’s journey will certainly take on vaster dimensions now.
Yet putting aside these important plot developments, what is most impressive about this return of “This Is Us” is its mature way of commenting on the world to which it returns. It’s the perfect show to do so. The Pearsons have learned time and again that life is unpredictable and where you are today may not be the same tomorrow. That is one of the great lessons of 2020. Now the Pearsons are on the journey as well of these shifting times. This show is us.
“This Is Us” season five premieres Oct. 27 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.