Family Mashup: Reunions, resolutions and bear-shaped slippers

This Is Us - Season 2
Ron Batzdorff / NBC/Courtesy

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“This Is Us” wrapped up its emotionally charged second season with an unexpectedly Kleenex-free finale. Meanwhile, “Modern Family” delivered a crackling half-hour that easily ranks among the best episodes of the show’s nine-season run.

‘This Is Us’

“The Wedding” caps off the second season of “This Is Us” without many tears. While there are some ominous cliffhangers during the final few minutes, the episode largely eschews season two’s darker tinge. What the finale showcases instead are welcome moments of growth for the Pearsons, who finally begin to move on from Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death.

“The Wedding” is another one of the criminally few family get-together specials that “This Is Us” should do more often. The Pearsons, the Damons and their extended family gather to celebrate Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby’s (Chris Sullivan) nuptials. Kate, however, is predictably hung up on the fact that her father isn’t there.

Kate’s much-explored inability to untangle the knot of guilt and grief that continually haunts her is further exacerbated when she starts dreaming of a perfect, strangely Toby-less life in which Jack is still alive. Of course, “This is Us” utilizes the narrative of Kate’s dreams for all the fan service it can muster and gives us a glimpse of a reality where it’s Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and not Toby and Kate, who are getting married.

Throughout most of the episode, viewers are led to believe Kate won’t be able to overcome the void that Jack’s death has left. All bets are on her pulling a “Runaway Bride.”

Perhaps to compensate for the impending gloominess, the remaining characters begin to play a “worst-case scenario” game. First up are Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who utilize the game as an avenue to air out their worries about Déjà’s (Lyric Ross) surliness. Next, the game is played by a darkly comedic Kevin (Justin Hartley) and a nervous Randall after they realize that Kate might have actually skipped out on the wedding.

It might be counterintuitive for a game in which people literally reveal their worst fears to be so hilarious, but there is something oddly satisfying behind the acknowledgement of these characters’ deepest insecurities. Besides undercutting the tension exuded by Kate’s storyline, the game also functions as the creators’ self-aware wink. Viewers may be imagining the worst for Kate and Toby, but perhaps their concerns are misplaced.

And misplaced they are. Turns out, Kate never wanted to back out from her marriage. What she did want, however, was to make enough room in her heart for somebody else by finally accepting her father’s death.

Whether it stemmed from her miscarriage, her weight-related insecurities, her fraught relationship with her mom or her unresolved feelings about her dad’s death, Kate is the one character who needed to make peace with her grief. Her conversation with Jack’s urn and her ensuing scattering of his ashes serve as the perfect denouement of her arc.

Kevin’s wedding toast also lends a welcome bit of finality to this episode and puts a metaphorical bow on the Pearsons’ individual journeys with Jack’s death. His speech also encapsulates many of the series’ essential themes. Grief can never truly be demarcated and defined into five clear-cut stages. Rather, like an old wound that never really heals, it is often painful, sometimes relenting, and always present.

Throughout its run, “This Is Us” tasked itself with finding a middle ground between wallowing in the void that comes from losing someone forever and filling that void as quickly as possible. Kate is someone who was fundamentally defined by her grief, while Kevin never really dealt with his. Instead, he entered a cycle of addiction, ignorance and self-inflicted heartbreak to escape quickly from the pain of his father’s death.

Through Kevin’s speech and Kate’s conversation with her dad’s urn, “This Is Us” suggests that perhaps the middle ground between those two extremes could be remembering the love, celebrating the memories and mourning the loss without letting it take over every thought and action.  

Even from a storytelling point of view, after an entire season portraying the story of how the family patriarch passed away, it is necessary for “This Is Us” to focus its narrative thrusts elsewhere.

That brief, tantalizing montage at the episode’s end could be a glimpse of those new narrative thrusts. The very-far-away season three looks poised to explore an unexpected development in Kate and Toby’s marriage, a support-worthy romance involving Kevin and Beth’s cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd) and a mystery set in the future with potentially tragic repercussions.

While some of these storylines are promising, the grim undertone of the mystery in the “old man Randall” future timeline could begin to get tiresome. Apparently, there is a person that Randall and an older Tess (Iantha Richardson) are afraid of seeing. Could it be Déjà, last seen smashing Randall’s car in the present? Could it be Beth, whom the camera panned to right before the flash-forwards started?

A petition should be started for the person to be neither of these options. A storyline foreshadowing an unhappy ending for either Déjà or Beth is completely unnecessary at this point. Haven’t these people been through enough tragedy already?

“This Is Us” deserves its reputation as TV’s much-needed good cry for the soul. But there is a distinction between a cathartic cry and a cry from an avalanche of traumatic storylines. Hopefully, in season three, “This Is Us” will continue to operate in the former territory.

‘Modern Family’

Ron Tom / ABC / Courtesy

Ron Tom / ABC / Courtesy

After reaching season five, most sitcoms tend to settle into a well-established rhythm. They cease experimentation with format, with most storylines revolving around the well-worn idiosyncrasies of the constituent characters.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the jokes still land — see “Friends,” “Seinfeld” et al. However, the shows begin to lack a sense of playfulness, with a sense that they will never really bother to mess around with their central premises again.

That’s why it is almost futile to expect the episodes of the ninth season of “Modern Family” to reach the creative highs of earlier episodes such as “Las Vegas,” “Caught in the Act” or “My Funky Valentine.” Even though “Modern Family” recently enjoyed a resurgence of sharper storylines that redeem it from the doldrums of its previous season, the balls-to-the-wall episodes of its earlier run are presumed long gone.

“Wine Weekend” shockingly shatters that expectation, delivering several punchy storylines in a rib-tickling half-hour that can stand tall among the best episodes of the first few seasons.

The entire half-hour revolves around the family’s slapstick high jinks during a weekend away at Haley’s (Sarah Hyland) boss’s mansion for wine tasting. Despite what the title and the premise would have you believe, the episode doesn’t feature much wine. Instead, Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Gloria (Sofía Vergara) try to steal an ashtray from Oprah Winfrey’s house, Phil (Ty Burrell) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) rehearse for a coveted Tuesday hip-hop class, and Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Claire (Julie Bowen) deal with Stella’s new slipper friend. For future reference, Stella is a dog and her new friend is a bear-shaped pair of slippers belonging to Phil.

In a typical “Modern Family” episode of late, some characters wind up getting the innocuous and requisite B-plot that provides the extra few minutes of every half-hour network sitcom. In “Wine Weekend,” however, every storyline is given equitable screen time, and every character brings independent comedic talents to the table.

Part of the success of this episode also lies in its use of the mansion as a common landmark. Since all of the characters are confined within four walls, some pop in and out of each other’s storylines until a whodunit mystery — centered on a broken tiara — forces the entire motley group to come together for a final confrontation. That’s when the real fun begins –– secrets are let loose, betrayals are discovered, and there are awkward hip-hop dances aplenty.

Ultimately, “Wine Weekend” proves to be one of those special “Modern Family” episodes that can be rewatched over and over. It’s consistently funny and doesn’t shy away from giving all of the characters the spotlights they deserve. If “Modern Family” can continue to conjure up the comedic magic from its earlier seasons, viewers should expect a rollicking time for the rest of its run.

‘Young Sheldon’

New episodes of ‘Young Sheldon’ will air Thursday, April 5.

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