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Family Mashup: Milestones, lost memories and mediocrity

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JANUARY 18, 2018

While “This Is Us” returned from its midseason break with another packed-to-the-rafters episode, “Modern Family” utilized a quieter but nevertheless poignant tone to mark its 200th episode and “Young Sheldon” tried to stretch out a bare-bones plot to a whole 20 minutes.

‘This Is Us’

“The Fifth Wheel” is a watershed hour for “This Is Us.” Up until this point, the Big Three have largely been isolated in their own storylines: Kevin (Justin Hartley) was off battling his drug addiction, Kate (Chrissy Metz) was grappling with her nascent pregnancy and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) was adjusting to his life as a foster parent. The toll that those separate, self-contained arcs took on each of these characters was showcased in full as the family finally came together to support Kevin in his hour of need.

“The Fifth Wheel” jumps forward a month after the events of the previous episode. Kevin has been sent to rehab following his arrest for a DUI, and the central ensemble is getting ready to see him for the first time. Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall are still furious at Kevin for unknowingly putting Tess in danger, but Randall is trying to suppress his anger for the sake of Kevin’s recovery. Kate, on the other hand, is guilty for not being able to see her brother’s suffering. Toby (Chris Sullivan) is characteristically cheery and optimistic about the entire situation until he finds out that Kate has started eating unhealthily again after her miscarriage.

The meat of the plot kicks in once everyone travels down to the facility and meets up with Kevin. It is here that Kevin’s therapist proposes an intimate session with his immediate family to strengthen his healing process. Beth, relieved at the chance to extricate herself from the situation, quickly rounds up Miguel (Jon Huertas) and Toby so that the trio (or, as Toby says, the “new Big Three”) can go to a nearby bar and wait.

Kevin kickstarts the therapy session by addressing the elephant in the room — why he became an addict in the first place. He argues that because addiction is something that ran in the family, and because Kate, too, has displayed signs of a food addiction, it was only a matter of time before Kevin would start drowning out his own sorrows through substance abuse.

Those sorrows, according to Kevin, are a result of parental neglect during his childhood. While Kate had Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) for support and Randall was ostensibly his mother’s favorite child, Kevin always ended up feeling like the odd one out. Or, rather, the proverbial “fifth wheel.”

Kevin’s opinions about the root cause of his addiction predictably stirs up the other members of his family. Kate, who earlier thought that the session was a perfect avenue for her brother to address his grief, now gets put on the defensive.

When Kevin’s therapist asks Rebecca (Mandy Moore) why she never addressed Jack’s addiction with her children, Rebecca says that she didn’t want to taint her children’s memories of their father. Since her kids only had their father for the first 17 years of their lives, she didn’t think it was necessary to bring up the one part of him which “wasn’t perfect.” After all, Jack can’t be there for Kate’s wedding or the birth of Randall’s children.

Rebecca’s response is weird because, as the therapist astutely observes, it doesn’t mention Kevin and how Jack cannot be there for him too. Kevin isn’t surprised about his absence from Rebecca’s reply, and lashes out at his mother for her “typical” behavior. Randall, who has been quiet this whole time, immediately jumps to Rebecca’s defense and angrily tries to shut Kevin down. He downplays Kevin’s problems by speculating that his addiction is just a childlike cry for attention.

The match is then lit for a full-blown shouting match between the two. Kevin, upset by Randall’s severity, brings up Tess into the conversation and notes how Randall’s desire to introduce new members into his family has emotionally strained his own children.

Randall decides that Kevin’s stinging barb is the final straw, and he gets up to leave. Rebecca tries to defuse Randall but Kevin isn’t having any of it. He isn’t shocked that, even in his hour of need, his mother is busy comforting Randall. His berating wears Rebecca down to a point where she admits that Randall was “the easiest” to love. Unlike Kevin, he didn’t “move away” when Jack died, and unlike Kate, he wasn’t a “sullen teenager” who was angry with his mother for some unknowable reason.

Predictably, the Pearson family explodes into fireworks. The near 10-minute-long emotional barrage is the show’s best written scene in recent memory. As viewers, we get to see the Pearsons finally address the baggage that they have been carrying throughout season two. The sequence ends up being a great showcase for the gifted actors, who consistently bring their A-game in each and every episode.

Given the commitment to tease out, rather than gloss over, the turmoil that the family is experiencing, it is only fitting that the episode’s main storyline ends with an optimistic but incomplete note. Randall does apologize to Kevin for downplaying his problems, and the Big Three do end up tentatively hugging it, out but the conflicts introduced in this episode look to be far from over. The Pearsons, particularly Kevin and Kate, still have a long journey ahead of them if they hope to finally reconcile their past with their present.

While the Pearsons are trying to hash out their issues in therapy, Miguel, Toby and Beth are off getting drunk. After a gossip session about Jack that is promptly shut down by Miguel, Toby reveals to the other two that Kate is attempting to eat and hide unhealthy food from him. He remarks on his apparent isolation from the A-group and likens his exclusion to “Star Wars.” While Rebecca and the Big Three get to be the people with the lightsabers, the other members in the family are stuck being “Chewbacca.”

Miguel, despite humorously observing that he is not even given the chance to be “Chewbacca,” defends the apparent A-group and points out that Jack’s loss is something only Rebecca and the Big Three have dealt with and experienced. According to Miguel, because they suffered through the tragedy of losing “the best man” anybody would ever know, they get to be the ones holding the lightsabers.

The B-subplot during the present timeline largely works well. Separating the “new Big Three” from the main cast serves as an appropriate opportunity to develop Miguel, Beth and Toby, along with the dynamics that they share with each other.

The Pearson family’s turbulent reunion in the past coincides with a turbulent family vacation during the “dad mustache” period.

Jack gets access to a cabin in the Poconos, and decides to take the entire family on an impromptu getaway. Rebecca reluctantly agrees and, during the vacation, airs her worries about Kate’s (Mackenzie Hancsicsak) increasing predilection for food to Jack.

Jack, while acknowledging Rebecca’s perspective, downplays the problem and promises to get Kate to exercise.

Kate picks up on Jack’s inconspicuous attempts to make her workout and starts questioning him about her appearance and whether Jack thinks she’s overweight. Jack promptly melts and cheers her up by taking her out for ice cream.

Meanwhile, after joining the family a few days later into the holiday because he was away at football camp, Kevin (Parker Bates) starts feeling left out. He reaches his tipping point when Rebecca accuses him of stealing Randall’s (Lonnie Chavis) glasses, and he yells out at his mother.

Kevin continues to be at odds with his mother throughout the vacation. During a thunderstorm, he goes to his parents’ room to sleep, only to find Randall and Kate already taking up all the available space. Dismayed, he sleeps on the floor.

The flashbacks effectively portray the origin point of some of the Pearsons’ struggles. It is easy to see that Jack’s doting nature and the ice cream trips he took with Kate may be responsible for her addiction in the present. Kate acknowledges this as much when she admits to Toby in the present that she is eating unhealthily again and that her utilization of food as comfort may have a deeper reason behind it.

The neglect that Kevin mentions in the present also gets reinforced by what we see in the past. But the indifference that Kevin felt from his mother may be less heightened than he says it is. After the Big Three reconcile somewhat in the present, Rebecca meets up with Kevin and tells him that his childhood may not have been as perfect as she thought it was, but she knows it in her heart that they did have some good memories together. We then go back to the past and see Rebecca waking up to go sleep on the floor with Kevin during the night of the thunderstorm.

The scene wraps up “The Fifth Wheel” — a whopper of an episode — with a feel-good undertone.

“This Is Us” needs an ending like that if it wants to put our hearts back together after that sob-fest of an hour.

‘Modern Family’

Family Mashup: Milestones, lost memories and mediocrity

Richard Cartwright/ABC/Courtesy

“Dear Beloved Family” is the nostalgic and celebratory 200th episode that “Modern Family” needed. It reckoned with love, fear, death and grief with a refreshing earnestness while reminding us of the reasons why “Modern Family” has been on air for the past decade.

Surprisingly, the chief framing device of the episode involves another visit to the hospital for Phil (Ty Burrell). Because of stomach pains, Phil needs emergency surgery right away, and the entire family, through a humorous montage, is shown rushing to his aid.

Claire (Julie Bowen) spends the majority of the episode frantically looking for Phil’s “surgery bear” — a necessity, as Phil claims, for all his hospital visits. After a search attempt that spans all of the Pritchett and Dunphy households, she learns that the bear is in Manny’s (Rico Rodriguez) custody. She goes to his college and discovers that Manny has been hiding out because he dyed his hair blonde. Recalling Phil’s “devil-may-care” attitude to all things embarrassing, Claire tearfully tells Manny that her husband just did his own thing, regardless of what anyone else thought. She finally gets the bear from him, only to discover that the whole search was a deliberate distraction on Phil’s part, who didn’t want his wife to overly worry about him.

“Dear Beloved Family” allows Claire to fully act out her desperation and her fear at the thought of losing her husband. The quiver in her voice as she recalled Phil’s most defining quality to Manny effectively displayed the ache and the sorrow lurking just underneath her surface.

It has been said many times before, but Phil and Claire continue to be be one of the most genuinely real and ship-worthy couples on TV.

Elsewhere, Joe (Jeremy Maguire) starts wondering about death after he learns of Phil’s surgery. Jay’s (Ed O’Neill) response to Joe’s queries is simple: immortality. Jay simply tells Joe that, because of technological progress, no one will ever die.

Predictably, the impressionable Joe takes Jay’s words at face value and tries to jump off the top of a staircase. He is stopped in time by Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and she and Jay are forced to tell him that life is indeed temporary. Joe becomes bummed out as a result, and he shares the depressing news about death with his friends during a get-together organized at his house.

Gloria and Jay try to uplift Joe by telling him that death is a necessary end because it allows us to appreciate every moment of the life that we have. The adorable child is still a little bit upset — until he sees Manny with his blonde hair coming back home.

Phil’s surgery, and the questions it brings up about death, naturally spills over to the Pritchett/Tucker household as well. Cam (Eric Stonestreet) is worried that Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is going to move on if he ever passes away and his insecurities get exacerbated once he learns about Mitchell’s attraction to Caleb (Fred Savage), a massage therapist.

The rest of this story arc is easy to see, with Caleb getting called over so that Cam is able to see and judge his apparent replacement. A comedy of errors ensues, and soon Caleb is under the impression that Mitchell and Cam want to have a threesome with him.

The whole arc starts to come off as unnecessary until the misunderstandings are resolved and Cam reveals that he is focusing on his demise because he may have a deadly hereditary illness in his family. Cam tested himself for the result and has been afraid to look over the results for the past few days. Mitchell patches up with Cam, and the two see that the results are, in fact, negative.

Cam’s reason for his outburst this week ends up being vilified, and “Modern Family” uses Phil’s surgery for a compelling enough conflict between Cam and Mitchell. In their case, the ends really did just justify the means.

Joe’s initial brush with questions about death and mortality was also given the suitably nuanced outlook that it deserved. It was appropriate that, after learning about the need to appreciate life’s joys while you can, Joe was treated to a sight gag involving his older brother.

The entire storyline revolving about Phil’s surgery concludes on a satisfyingly sugary note. Phil’s surgery is successful and, during his recovery, the entire family acquiesces to his idea of an annual tradition called the “Dunphy Games.” We are then treated to a cute little montage of the kids and the adults taking part in various hospital-themed contests.

For a show that seemed to have reached its creative nadir in season eight, “Modern Family” looks to have found its spark back. Sure, it still has a lot of things it can work on, but season nine has so far produced a consistent stream of above-average episodes.

Hopefully, the revitalization of “Modern Family”s creative energy continues until the end of its apparently confirmed final season.

‘Young Sheldon’

Family Mashup: Milestones, lost memories and mediocrity

Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Courtesy

“Demons, Sunday School, and Prime Numbers” largely seems like a filler episode. The primary story arc is tediously long and doesn’t really offer anything memorable to the freshman catalogue of “Young Sheldon.”

When Mary (Zoe Perry) sees Sheldon (Iain Armitage) playing Dungeons & Dragons, she gets worried about the demonic connotations surrounding the supposedly innocuous game. After a conversation with Meemaw (Annie Potts) and George (Lance Barber) that winds up leading nowhere, she calls Pastor Jeff (Matt Hobby) for an intervention. Sheldon promptly tells the pastor that he doesn’t believe in God. Pastor Jeff reminds Sheldon to treat his belief like any scientist and to perform the scientific method on religion before deciding if he wants to believe in God or not.

Sheldon takes Pastor Jeff’s advice and starts attending Sunday school. He is able to quickly read through and recite the Bible, much to Mary’s delight.

However, Sheldon uses the scientific method to a T and begins to analyze the scriptures of other religions as well. Mary, disturbed at the thought that her son may not be a Baptist, tries to convince Sheldon to stop. However, she decides that it should up to Sheldon to find his own truth, and she doesn’t force him to stop his deep dive into religion.

Finally, after a trippy dream involving binary digits, Sheldon invents his own religion called “Mathology” and begins recruiting at Pastor Jeff’s Sunday school.

Besides showing fleeting glimpses of the offbeat humor that characterizes Meemaw and George’s interactions, there isn’t really anything funny in this week’s offering. Furthermore, there is little to no character development as well, which is a shame considering the recent strides “Young Sheldon” has made in fleshing out its supporting cast.

Since “Demons, Sunday School, and Prime Numbers” is the only relative clunker in a sea of consistently watchable episodes, it is easy enough to excuse “Young Sheldon” this time. Next time, it would be satisfying to see some of the signature heft and humor that has been the hallmark of most of season one.

Contact Arjun Sarup at [email protected].

JANUARY 18, 2018

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