Critic's Notebook: 'This Is Us' Returns for Second Season With Emotional Ghoulishness

[This article contains spoilers for the Tuesday, September 26 second season premiere of This Is Us.]

I don't know if I can do this for much longer, This Is Us.

Heaven knows, I respect This Is Us. No, I don't think it's one of the six best dramas on TV, but other than begrudging it some of its top-tier Emmy recognition — not Sterling K. Brown, mind you, he's The Man — I liked the first season right up until the finale, which I hated, but I mostly hated it because I loved the two episodes previous so much.

But I can't keep going with This Is Us if it's going to treat each week's episode as a 57-minute build-up to another clue about the death of Milo Ventimiglia's Jack.

That's not the show I signed on for.

It's not the show I want to watch.

And I honestly can't believe it's the show that This Is Us truly, in its heart of hearts, wants to be; that Dan Fogelman wants to be writing a show in which there are going to be fans angry and disappointed if the way that he and the writers have chosen to kill off a main character is "right" or "good enough." What kind of ghoulish nonsense is that for a family drama?

It's just so strange to be watching a show that's about love and emotional compromises and family bonds and then for it to become a guessing game about how and when and why a character died. People are going to guess "right" and people are going to guess "wrong" and websites are already writing up voluminous posts of "theories" and people are going to be "disappointed" that this character didn't die the way they wanted him to or the way they thought they emotionally needed him to or in a way that was satisfying to them.

And what is that? You know what that is? That's Kevin Can Wait — And no, I'm not talking about Justin Hartley's Kevin.

I'm talking about the awful CBS sitcom starring Kevin James that I watched on Monday night for one reason and one reason only: Between seasons they wrote out Erinn Hayes' Donna so that Leah Remini could rekindle her King of Queens chemistry with Kevin James. The idea that a badly written sitcom wife could just be killed off when writers tired of her was so crazy that I watched Kevin Can Wait on Monday night and I was embarrassed with myself. Then I was embarrassed with myself for being disappointed that nobody came out and said, "Man, since Donna unexpectedly fell into the petting area at the aquarium and was suffocated by starfish, we've been so sad." Instead, they acknowledged her death at the top of the episode in the form of an insensitive renewal notice from her gym and then in tacky, emotionally manipulative fashion at the end. There were actually no details at all. It was dreadfully done, but as I paused and thought about it, I was forced to wonder what gave me any reason to believe Kevin Can Wait was going to be smart or compassionate, much less that it would honor that it wasn't Erinn Hayes' fault nobody gave her the opportunity to be funny.

And I expect This Is Us will eventually do better. See? I believe in you, Dan Fogelman! But it's stupid to be watching Kevin Can Wait and This Is Us for the same reasons and This Is Us has decided it wants to start structuring itself as a death mystery show, rather than as an intersecting storyline family show and this worries me and it worries me when Fogelman talks about Jack's death as a puzzle and speculates about how it's going to be received on the internet, because it's his show and he can do what he wants and he's probably not able to be wrong about the kind of show he's making. It can just become wrong for me.

I'm sorry, but I just can't bring myself to get invested at this point in the premiere's shocking revelations that Jack died when the kids were 17, which I guess means 20 years ago, which I guess means 1997? And that apparently he died in a fire in the Pearson house? You could have told me that in the second episode of the first season and literally nothing I enjoy about the show would have been negatively impacted.


The mystery of Jack's death is not doing anything to improve the genuinely wonderful marital push-and-pull between Randall (Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). Brown got all of the respect and awards and he deserved them, but if there's a part of this hugely rated show that's still underrated, it's Watson. What she has done as a foil for Brown has been wonderful from the first episode and I loved that she got the scene with a returning Ron Cephas Jones, because the relationship between William and Beth was one that we were told was very important even though it definitely didn't get enough screen time last season. I think it would be smart to have lots of flashbacks to scenes with William and Beth and with William and Mandy Moore's Rebecca. In fact, I hope the show uses flashbacks with William and everybody other than Randall. Don't ruin the shattering power of where we left Randall and William. Anyway, I love Randall and Beth and I'm willing to follow them on their path to adopt a troubled youth, even though I watched Parenthood, so I may know how this is going to play out.

The mystery of Jack's death is not doing anything to make me more interested in the momentum-starved premiere storyline with Kevin, Kate and my fictional nemesis Toby. I'm really conflicted on tonight's storyline in which Kate skipped out on auditioning for a band, came back and indignantly forced her way into an audition and then indignantly blamed the band for not giving her the singing gig because she was overweight only to be told that she didn't get the job because she wasn't as talented as the attractive, skinny girl. It was the writers saying, "Not everything related to Kate has to do with weight!" which was nice and it was cool that Kate felt empowered by her humiliation, but the vindicating of the condescending bandleader who totally, in this situation, always would have picked the hot, thin singer felt icky to me. Kevin's plot in this episode was limited and Toby was Toby.

And the mystery of Jack's death is not doing anything to make me more interested in the material with Jack and Young Rebecca. Ventimiglia and Moore remain excellent together and I want them to repair their relationship and I want her never to have to marry Esposito from Castle with his awful old age makeup. I already know that's not going to happen and I already know sadness is looming, but the sleight of hand isn't improving my connection to it all, nor is knowing a time and location. It does make me sad to expect that Jack's drinking problem, which Rebecca is so determined to help him with, may play a role in the fire and his death, but withholding details isn't making me sadder. 

And don't get me started on introducing new clues into the death spiral. Kevin had a cast! There was a dog! Who was that girl?

I think I wouldn't feel this way if the characters on the show didn't know exactly how Jack died, if this were a mystery they're trying to unravel and a journey that we're going on with them. They know. Maybe Toby doesn't know, because why would you tell Toby anything? But everybody else knows. We're the only ones who don't know. This is just straight-up a storyteller pushing the audience around and I know that countless This Is Us fans probably ended tonight's episode sobbing because that's how you were supposed to end it.

I'm sure there will be displeasure with my annoyance, my growing annoyance.

But this is me.