Family Mashup: There ain’t no smoke without fire

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This week, “This Is Us” offered a lighter episode that was comparatively free of drama, “Modern Family” delivered an engaging follow-up to last week’s refreshingly confident episode and “Young Sheldon” continued its recent nosedive into the realm of “just OK.”

‘This Is Us’

After the emotional tour-de-force of “The Fifth Wheel,” “This Is Us” needed a relative palette-cleanser like “Clooney” before it could ruthlessly resume its tugging at our already fragile heartstrings. Besides an origin story for William’s cat and a journey of self-discovery for Randall (Sterling K. Brown), “Clooney” does little to advance the story of episodes that came before. Instead, this episode gives Kate (Chrissy Metz) a necessary friend outside her immediate family and adds in just enough sympathy for Miguel (Jon Huertas) to finally make him a believable and compelling character.

The deepening of Miguel’s character largely comes about when Kevin (Justin Hartley) decides to stay with Rebecca (Mandy Moore) for a few days so that he can ease back into his normal routine post-rehab. Kevin thinks that some downtime alone with his mom would help their relationship, but he is uncomfortable with Miguel’s constant presence. Tensions between the two come to a head after Miguel accompanies Kevin and Rebecca to the grocery store one morning. There, Kevin asks Miguel why he wanted to go with them to the store. Miguel replies by saying that Rebecca hasn’t been doing well since the therapy session and that he is there to “protect” her in case Kevin says something else hurtful to her.

The whole “Miguel seems like a stand-up guy” theory only gains more traction in the evening, once Kevin finally asks Miguel the thing that’s been bothering us this whole time: Was he in love with Rebecca when she was married to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia)? Miguel is taken aback by the question, but he nevertheless says that he didn’t think of Rebecca in a romantic capacity when Jack was alive. For him, Jack and Rebecca were inseparable; you couldn’t think of one without thinking of the other.

But Miguel does add that he loves Rebecca now. He then promises that he is not going away anytime soon. Rebecca, after Kevin prompts her, says she is happy with Miguel. While that happiness is of a quieter and older kind than the one she had with Jack, it is still happiness.

As Miguel’s character rehabilitation proceeds, Randall is uncharacteristically listless. He becomes fixated on a poem that William (Ron Cephas Jones) wrote about a woman and tries to search for her by knocking on apartment doors in William’s building. Randall’s quest takes us into the world that William used to inhabit. We are introduced to his eccentric but well-meaning neighbor, the exasperated but decent superintendent and several other people who just matter-of-factly go about their everyday lives.

Randall’s newfound “mission of the week” worries Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who is already concerned about Randall’s recent detachment both from her and from his profession. She tells him how his recent standoffish behavior has begun to impact their relationship, insisting that it would be good for them if Randall found a job imminently.

Randall tries to live up to Beth’s wishes, but he leaves a job interview midway once he discovers a new clue about the mysterious woman in William’s poem. Randall’s journey parallels flashbacks of a lost, malnourished, stray cat struggling to keep himself alive. That cat ends up reaching William’s doors one fateful day, and that’s when we see how Clooney finally met his adoptive parent.

It is here that “This Is Us” utilizes lighting to great effect. While the flashbacks involving Clooney depict William’s neighborhood with a brighter and sunnier hue, the present portrays that same neighborhood with a bluer, washed-out and decayed color tone. It’s almost as if the absence of William has taken out the essence, the color, the heart from the place he used to live.

Randall is also quick to pick up on how dilapidated and broken William’s neighborhood now feels. After determining that the woman in the poem was just a character that William made up from a nearby poster, he decides to pick the renovation of William’s apartment building as his next job. He wants the people who used to be in William’s life to be happy, and he takes up the task of giving them that happiness by partnering with Beth, who is a seasoned veteran in housing management.

Elsewhere, Kate bonds with Madison (Caitlin Thompson). Yes, really, that Madison. It turns out that when Kate is not tearing Madison a new one for her apparent lack of weight problems, they can actually get along just fine.

The two go shopping for a custom wedding dress for Kate. Things are going swell, until Kate starts picking up on signals that Madison may have bulimia. Madison brushes Kate off, but contacts Kate for help later after fainting in her bathroom.

Kate rushes to her aid and comforts her by talking to her about the dark void that she herself felt after losing all of the weight she intended to lose when she was a teenager. When Kate didn’t have that voice of self-doubt calling out to her, she felt incomplete and empty inside.

“This Is Us” made the right call by giving Kate a social life that isn’t in any way related to the other Pearsons or even Toby (Chris Sullivan). For Kate, interacting with people who were not in her largely-travelled comfort zone revealed layers to her that she didn’t even knew existed. Going forward, “This Is Us” needs to continue to give more opportunities for Kate to develop outside of her dynamics with the Pearson family.

Back in the past, we have now officially switched over to the “Jack has a Goatee” time period. This week, the gang is going to the mall — cue the Robin Sparkles song!

Some of the Big Three need outfits for prom, and some (a.k.a. Randall) need to go so that they (he) can try to awkwardly ask someone out. While Jack takes Kevin (Logan Shroyer) tuxedo shopping, Rebecca and Kate (Hannah Zeile) go looking for prom dresses and Randall (Niles Fitch) tries using a Magic 8-Ball he made to woo a girl he likes. Spoiler alert: He succeeds.

Through clever cuts, Rebecca and Kate’s arc in the past is juxtaposed with Kate’s conversations with Madison in the present. When Kate confesses to Madison that losing the weight didn’t help, we see Kate in the past fitting into the dress she always wanted, but then refusing to buy that dress because the destination of her long journey didn’t seem to be worth it.

Kate’s story in the “Jack has a Goatee” period of the past is undeniably the highlight of the flashbacks. It adds an interesting new wrinkle to Kate’s already turbulent history with her weight. The fact that Kate actually sees her self-doubt as a defining and irremovable feature of her personality, paired with the fact that Jack’s death could have contributed to an eating addiction, signal compelling storylines for Kate in upcoming episodes.

Meanwhile, Kevin — given his recent football injury — is predictably somber about everything and finds a fellow moping companion at the mall with the recently-divorced Miguel. Jack, ever the optimist, tries to cheer everybody up, until Kevin reminds him that he never had something in his life he truly wanted to pursue.

Miguel is quick to recall Jack’s plans for opening his own construction business, “Big Three Homes.” Hearing Miguel bring back his long-lost ambitions awakens something in Jack. He later tells Rebecca that, even though the timing may not be right as the Big Three prepare to start college, he plans to revive his company. Rebecca, while initially wary, eventually supports the idea and the two discuss the future ahead.

That seems like a neat enough ending, right? Right? Wrong! Rebecca asks Jack whether they forgot something at the mall. Jack says that he doesn’t remember and the two continue talking, oblivious to the fact that they did indeed forget to buy batteries for the smoke detector.

The camera then pans to show the smoke detector. Because the detector itself is treated by the shot as a malevolent creature from a B-grade horror movie, coupled with the fact that the premiere revealed that Jack died in a fire, something as seemingly innocuous as forgetting batteries could potentially turn fatal for the Pearsons.

Oh, “This Is Us.” You couldn’t have let us have one completely flameless and harmless episode, could you?

‘Modern Family’

TY BURRELL, NOLAN GOULD

Ron Tom / ABC / Courtesy

“In Your Head” serves as an effective companion piece to last week’s “Dear Beloved Family.” The main thrust of this episode reckons with the temporariness of life, ultimately showing how that very impermanence is a blessing. A particular standout of this week’s half-hour is a decidedly non-flashy, non-twisty and honest Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) subplot. We also get a much-needed check-in with the Dunphy children, who were missing in prominence this season.

The refreshing nature of this week’s Cam and Mitch story arc is largely a result of the pair simply spending time together without needlessly trying to one-up each other. After a friend starts using all of the wine and caviar they had been saving for something special in the future, Cam and Mitch realize they have always planned for a noteworthy occasion in an amorphous, unknown future without really celebrating the simple joys they can experience in the present. The two try to course-correct and start doing everything they planned to do down the road. They both begin to miss having something to look forward to, however, and quickly reverse their trend of indulgence.

The low-stakes and comparatively light plot serves as a welcome break from the usual doses of theatricality and deception that viewers have come to expect from the Cam and Mitch portions of “Modern Family.” It is a helpful reminder of the fact that the couple indeed love being together and appreciate having the other’s company as they grapple with common issues.

Another notable arc predictably centers on the always-adorable father-son relationship of Phil (Ty Burrell) and Luke (Nolan Gould). Apparently, Luke disappeared in a sketchy neighborhood while hanging out with Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Concerned, Manny alerts Phil and the two take Gloria (Sofìa Vergara) on their search party to find Luke.

Phil is unusually calm about the entire situation but begins to freak out after the girl Luke was with doesn’t remember where he is. His fears only manifest for a select few minutes, though. It turns out Luke was locked out on a nearby roof, “The Hangover”-style.

The parting shot of Luke resting on his father’s shoulder is the kind of tender moment that only “Modern Family” can seem to pull off without steeping in overt sentimentality.

Elsewhere, Jay’s (Ed O’Neill) long-time business rival Earl Chambers (the late Jon Polito) passed away and posthumously tasked Jay with scattering his ashes. Jay doesn’t really know where Chambers wants the ashes to be dispersed and spends the rest of the episode trying to figure it out. Claire, meanwhile, tries to break the generation-long rivalry between the Chambers family and the Pritchett family. She is inadvertently foiled in her attempts to offer an olive branch to the Chambers’ daughter by the curmudgeonly Jay.

Despite adding fresh fuel to a rivalry that was about to die down, Jay still ends the episode on a somewhat happy note. He deduces that the location in the clue was a reference to an old meeting spot for Earl and Jay. We then get a beautiful shot of Jay walking up a hill and scattering Earl’s ashes next to a tree as a sunset looms on the horizon.

There is also an amusing enough subplot involving Haley’s (Sarah Hyland) attempts to land a job at a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle company. The satire works for the most part and it is a genuine relief to see Haley with her own storyline for once.

Overall, “In Your Head” goes down as an entry in the “win” column for “Modern Family”’s ninth season.

‘Young Sheldon’

A Computer, A Plastic Pony, And A Case of Beer

CBS / Courtesy

“A Computer, a Plastic Pony, and a Case of Beer” is another undercooked half-hour of “Young Sheldon.”

This week, George Sr. (Lance Barber) and Mary’s (Zoe Perry) marriage appears to be on the rocks after a spat involving the purchase of a computer for Sheldon (Iain Armitage). George thinks that the computer would take a needless toll on their finances, while Mary believes that it could be a useful tool for Sheldon and, by extension, the entire Cooper family.

Their argument reaches its breaking point when Mary reveals that she has been saving aside some of her own money for a while now. Upset at Mary’s revelation, George passive-aggressively acts out. Mary responds in kind. She takes the kids to live over at Meemaw’s (Annie Potts) house for a bit.

The rest of the half-hour chugs along, piling on unsurprising beat after unsurprising beat. There is the now quintessential, unfunny “aw-shucks” humor with Georgie (Montana Jordan), the signature dose of indifference and sardonic barbs from Meemaw’s side, and Sheldon’s general passivity at everything happening around him.

Expectedly, Sheldon ends up getting the computer, and George and Mary resolve their issues.

What is less expected, though, is the recent bout of staleness affecting “Young Sheldon.” This week’s cause for conflict is a little more ripe with humor than last week’s religion-focused clunker, but the execution still leaves a lot to be desired.

It would be a shame if “Young Sheldon” fails to capitalize on the promise it built during the first half of its freshman season.

Arjun Sarup covers television. Contact him at [email protected].

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