“This is Us” pivoted directly into current events, tackling the pandemic and, more pointedly, the fallout from the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. Yet the show also closed its two-hour premiere with another major twist in the Pearson family history, potentially adding a new long-lost relative to its ranks.
Series creator Dan Fogelman told reporters last week that it would have “felt almost irresponsible” not to incorporate coronavirus and what’s happening in the world at large into the fictional storyline, a choice that produced some strong moments as well as a few awkward ones.
The best of those involved Randall (Sterling K. Brown), grappling not only with the pandemic but Floyd’s death, in a way that gnawed at him enough to alarm those around him. “I’m not falling apart. I’m not having a breakdown. I’m just really, really sad,” he told his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), at the end of the program, to which she reassured him that the fight goes on and “This pain is not forever.”
Brown was, as usual, sensational, as Randall dealt with issues that he has previously been reluctant to discuss, even with his siblings and therapist. The mix of micro and macro most successfully collided within that character, offering a promising foundation for the season to come.
The big-picture moments, though, had to be balanced against those specific to the show’s dense history, which, as is so often the case in such fare, keeps layering new wrinkles on top of the older ones, in ways that can easily begin to look a trifle forced.
That included, in the two-part premiere, a look back at the circumstances surrounding Randall’s birth and how he wound up left at the hospital, punctuated by the stunning last-gasp (literally) revelation that his birth mother — long presumed dead — might actually still be alive.
Yes, the scene was genuinely surprising, but after the return of Randall’s since-departed biological dad and the family’s troubled uncle, the prospect of another unexpected reunion risks proving repetitious in a way destined to yield diminishing returns.
“This is Us” occupied more familiar ground with the Pearson-specific plots in the opening episodes, including the continuing tension between Randall and his brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), concerns about their mom (Mandy Moore) and her early-stage Alzheimer’s, and the prospect of Kevin becoming a father thanks to the unplanned pregnancy of Madison (Caitlin Thompson).
NBC renewed the show for three seasons in 2019, extending its run at least through the spring of 2022. While its fate beyond that remains unclear, the way the fifth-season premiere folded back in on the original pilot episode feels like setting the stage to start building toward a finale, although Fogelman has so frequently bent time — with flashforwards as well as flashbacks — that there are clearly still plenty of untapped possibilities.
For now, fans will likely welcome having one of TV’s most popular and heartwarming dramas back. Those who view the Pearsons’ troubles and triumphs as an escapist distraction from their own, however, will find that prescription a bit more difficult with “This is Us” merging onto the same bumpy road as our current reality.