This Is Us returned for its third season Tuesday night, and I didn’t cry a single time — which, as you probably know, is the litmus test for how good an episode of the show is. Heading into season 3, I’m not nearly as invested in Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) first date now that I’ve seen exactly how their love story will end. Kate (Chrissy Metz) needs less monologue over uneaten birthday cake and more substance. I still don’t know why Randall (Sterling K. Brown) keeps being tasked with difficult conversations when he bombs them every time, bless his heart. It’s tenderly pitiful. And Kevin (Justin Hartley) is still floating by as the attractive but aloof white guy. He’ll probably never get a tear from me. But what could have been a lackluster season opener was made dope again by the show’s Black women.
At the top of the list is Zoe (Melanie Liburd), Beth’s sister-cousin — she’s technically Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) cousin, but was raised by Beth’s mom after her own mother abandoned her at the age of 7. When we met her in the season two finale, she and Kevin barely made it into a hotel room before they were ripping each other’s clothes off. This is par for the course on Kevin’s part. He’s a Hollywood hottie who has had no shortage of women in his bed. But in the season 3 premiere “Nine Bucks,” it looks like Kevin may have met his match in Zoe.
“She eats men up and spits them out,” a furious Beth warns him when she finds out about their affair, despite their best efforts to hide it from her. That Kevin’s sister-in-law is warning him about a woman who can “break” him instead of trying to protect her from his immature whims is major. After dating a string of white women who have all been left to mend broken hearts, a Black woman is proving to be a formidable partner for Kevin. Zoe’s presence has already re-positioned the Pearson golden boy, and this is the storyline I can’t wait to see through as the season goes on.
But this dynamic — the one in which the Black female characters on This Is Us make the other characters worth watching — isn’t limited to Zoe and Kevin. Deja (Lyric Ross) is about to be formally adopted by the Pearsons and will be a regular character in this season. In the first episode, she’s already schooled her new dad on class privilege and the ways in which their adoption stories are not at all the same. Randall was raised in a loving family that could support him since he was a baby. Deja has experienced abandonment from both of her parents and must deal with the emotional fallout of that.
Beth is still the absolute best character on the show, putting out fires in her own house and trying to manage those being set by her extended family. I am still craving more of her backstory and flashbacks from her younger years. And as “Nine Bucks” ended with another flash forward scene starring adult Tess (a perfectly cast Iantha Richardson) I get the feeling that she might be a surprise tear jerker. I’m calling it now: Black women, perhaps unintentionally, are the secret weapon in this season. As the saying goes, third time’s the charm.
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