Last Night’s This Is Us Was Its First Cringeworthy Episode

Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
If you’ve read anything I’ve ever said about This Is Us, you know it’s ridiculously easy for a show to make me cry. Well, I will now fill you on another one of my television-related habits: I can’t watch cringeworthy situations. You know, the kinds of moments that are so awkward, you feel bad for the fictional people forced to carry them out. That’s why I’ve had to skip entire an entire episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and could never watch MTV’s, well, Awkward. Although This Is Us usually forgoes those shows' classic, purposeful humiliation for Hallmark-style resolutions or emotional punches to the gut, that wasn’t quite the case in Tuesday night’s “Deja Vu.” The episode is uncharacteristically pretty darn cringe-worthy for more than half the Pearson family.
When an episode of television makes me truly uncomfortable, I try to deal with the mounting awkwardness by muting everything. That way, I can see what happens without hearing how terribly embarrassing everything is for the characters. The only “Deja Vu” scene that required such a dire salve is when Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) is trying to film a heartfelt scene with Sylvester Stallone (playing Sylvester Stallone). It’s meant to be a rousing and deep show of appreciation, but he can’t get the words out. At one point, he can’t even remember the first word he’s supposed to say — and it’s “I.” When Kevin asks a crew member for the “first word,” she tries to help him, slowly saying much more of the line than simply a one-letter pronoun. Instead of being thankful, Kevin brushes her off, shooting back with far too much snark, “Just the first word’s all I needed. Thank you all for the rest of them.” Harsh. Still, Kevin can’t get the first “I” out and dramatically face-palms instead.
There are levels upon levels as to why this scene-within-a-scene is so cringey. First of all, Kevin is failing at his job in a shockingly public way. This isn’t like when the former sitcom star was rehearsing for The Back Of An Egg in front of Broadway people whose names he probably couldn’t remember. Instead, he can’t get his lines out in front of the movie hero he grew up idolising, Stallone, and an Oscar-winning director who has the power to make or break careers, Ron Howard. Kevin knows this, and you can practically see his throat tightening in anxiety, all the while, the bright lights of the movie set are roasting him in his heavy, constricting Army uniform. On top of all of this, it’s deeply Chrissy Teigen cry face-worthy to see a panicking Kevin tell off a Black woman who’s trying to help him… only to watch him blow the scene again.
While Kevin is flailing in front of multiple Hollywood elites, we see he’s remembering beloved moments with his late dad Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), who introduced his son to Stallone’s movies and was Sly’s biggest fan. The flashbacks are supposed to drive home how Kevin’s unresolved issues with his father’s death are being brought back up, and that’s why he can’t do the scene with Stallone, who’s supposed to be “like a father to him” in the movie. Usually, This Is Us would show us some great Jack moment of days long gone that would help Kevin triumph over his momentary failure. Instead, the scene wraps with a claustrophobic tight shot of the actor’s face in his hands.
At least Kevin isn’t alone in his discomfort. A few minutes later in “Deja Vu,” Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) tries to seduce Jack in a car during their ‘90s rough patch. She puts herself out there, planning a “present” day re-do of one of the couple’s most romantic dates. Rebecca gives her husband her sexiest look, leans in for kiss, and hops on top of him since Jack is in the passenger seat. As soon as she tries to undo Jack’s belt, he stops Rebecca, saying, “Baby, just slow... slow down.” You can practically feel Rebecca’s embarrassment in your own body as the musician returns to her side of the car. “This was a really, um, this was silly. To plan a thing like this,” she sighs, already beating herself up.
Having one’s partner sexually rebuff them is uncomfortable for anyone, but it’s even worse than usual for Rebecca in this moment for a couple of reasons. She’s never the one to pull a “Jack,” and plan a big romantic gesture, since we all know that is her husband’s signature move. By trying to pull off one showy, sentimental deed herself, Rebecca already feels exposed. Plus, women are usually socially conditioned to reject men for sex, not the other way around. It’s clear Rebecca feels hurt her husband seemingly doesn’t want her sexually.
And, then, there’s The Shelly Thing. Miguel’s (Jon Huertas) ex-wife Shelly (Wynn Everett) urges Rebecca to sleep with Jack to fight off the possibility of their marriage crumbling into dust. Over lunch, the newly-divorced woman asks Rebecca the last time she and Jack had sex, and Mrs. Pearson mumbles, “It's been a while.” Instead of encouragement, Shelly fills her friend's heart with fear. “If you let so much time go by, the answer to that question is, ‘It’s been a while,’” Shelly tells her friend with a knowing look. “That was the beginning of the end for me and Miguel.” That quasi-death sentence sends Rebecca into the spiral that will lead to her pouncing on Jack in an old-timey Chevelle with little success. And, let’s not forget, Rebecca is unknowingly talking to her future husband’s ex-wife about her sex life with her first husband. This is a tornado of yikes.
While everything ends happily and hornily ever after for Mr. and Mrs. Pearson — following a very This Is Us-y heart-to-heart they go for a round two in the car — the show’s choice to test out the waters of an awkward scene or two is a smart one, even if it makes me mute the proceedings from time to time. The family drama can veer into the overly schlocky, to the point where it doesn’t seem believable, but it does seem manipulative. These pitfalls happens to be the two biggest complaints viewers have about the series. However, awkwardness is a real part of life, so it should be a real part of the Pearsons’ world too, no matter how much my skin crawls.
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