Attempts at relatability hijack ‘This Is Us’ narrative in first half of season 5

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Already on its midseason break, “This Is Us” made a brief return to our airwaves before swiftly exiting four episodes later. In a year unfolding like no other, director Dan Fogelman produces the endearing show’s continuation inspired by the realities of 2020. While its decision to bring attention to national issues was purposeful, these efforts fall flat: Audiences attempting to escape a chaotic, emotional 12 months only find themselves rewatching their own reality show awkwardly played out on television screens.

“This is Us” picks up where it left off with the Pearsons: Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison’s (Caitlin Thompson) business unfinished and Toby (Chris Sullivan) and Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) playful relationship seemingly better than ever. But, the first scene segues like uneven patchwork from Kevin and Randall’s (Sterling Brown) vehement conversation to Madison’s worries about the impending severity of the coronavirus. A few scenes later, face masks become the norm in the show’s world, the same way they have in ours.

Trying to weave together a plot in which social distancing and COVID-19 have a genuine part is faulty and unnecessary. Despite Toby’s adorable banter on what pattern Kate’s mask should be, Fogelman fails to align the pandemic with any ongoing plot or character development to this point. It begs the brownie points and relevance for addressing a relatable issue but materializes as nothing greater than a directionless space filler.

To touch on the revival of social justice movements, Fogelman depicts Randall, alone in his bathroom, watching the atrocious video of George Floyd’s death, which sparked the summer protests. With no words, Fogelman flawlessly emulates the pure vulnerability and shock rippling through Randall. Brown’s performance of Randall’s pain and exhaustion of racial inequality accentuates this unbearable emotion pervading American communities.

Bringing attention to such a heavy topic comes at a cost, specifically of the knee-slapping one-liners or amusing dialogue. The chronological scene-jumps Fogelman is usually so brilliant at interlacing are cut from this season. Instead, space is created for Randall and Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) tough, tear-jerking conversations through the elimination of witty comic relief. These decisions, although necessary to paint the gravity of the situation, undoubtedly rob the show of its traditional trademarks.

Because of these unexpected detours, it becomes clear what Fogelman’s intent is: to enlighten his audience on the existing urgency surrounding racial injustices. In short, this choice does resonate as effective. Randall, a Black man adopted at birth by white parents, provides a complex angle that is captivating for audiences to observe. The writing for Randall is rich in thought, allowing us to peer into the perspective of how he is coping with events that shattered our hearts, too.

Newfound emergence of youthful passion manifests in Tess (Eris Baker), a close representation of the average teenager. But instead of portraying Tess’ activism as inspiring, Fogelman leaves us with an impression that she is blindly naive in her beliefs. In interactions with her parents, Tess is ridiculed, cringe-worthy and written off as a juvenile girl full of attitude, thus making viewers squirm in their chairs with second hand embarrassment. While many young viewers share her fiery sentiments and, like the character, raise awareness of national issues through social media, this growing demographic of informed intellectuals is not accurately portrayed through Tess and those around her

While these are efforts in good faith to incorporate meaningful depictions of our present society, “This is Us” ultimately misses the mark. Fans adore the show for its heartwarming story of everyone’s favorite TV family rather than its ability to be a real-time documentary. That is not to suggest that current issues and dramedies are mutually exclusive, but that their overlap must be tasteful to succeed. This season of “This is Us” does the opposite: The intertwining of reality with the Pearsons’ world is clunky and rushed, leaving loyal fans with mixed feelings and unanswered questions.

But, as Fogelman subtly plants cliffhangers for promising future arcs at the ends of episodes, it is a hopeful sign that their primary focus may return back that good old timeline-hopping pattern that fans of “This is Us” love and miss dearly.

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected].