This Is Us: Pilot (S 1 E 1)

Great Episodes is a series of blogs on my all-time favorite episodes of, well, everything. 

It’s tough to recall now that, when This Is Us premiered, no one knew the story of the Pearson family. The show was billed as a non-specific examination of people who happened to have the same birthday. The show’s pilot made good on this promise, following four (seemingly) separate storylines: a woman living with weight issues, an actor experiencing career disillusion, a man searching for his birth father, and a woman at the end of a high-risk pregnancy, accompanied by her attractive and adoring husband.

We find out early on that two of these people are siblings, sharing a 36th birthday, but it’s not until the very end that we discover the entire group is one interconnected family. The delivery storyline is a flashback to when two of the “Big Three” were born and the last, spontaneously adopted after their mother loses one of her triplets. (“Loses” feels like a challenging word here, as the child did not survive the pregnancy.)

The unexpected reveal has a big emotional payoff, and that alone is what set This Is Us up to be such a compelling drama. From the beginning, each character has a rich backstory, complicated emotional challenges, and potentially decades of stories to be told. Anyone who kept watching after the pilot was in for a drama that, although not always as impactful as the first episode, was often meaningful, thoughtful and sensitive in a way that family television dramas rarely are.

But the pilot episode of This Is Us isn’t without its drawbacks. We’re introduced to the core Pearson gang, but we’re also given Toby, Kate’s controlling and irritating boyfriend. That is not to diminish the actor that plays him: my belief is that Toby has only gotten away with being such a pushy and unlikeable person because of the inherent likeability of Chris Sullivan. My personal hope is that Season 3 of This Is Us will give Kate her own sense of self-worth, that doesn’t rely on having a man take interest in her. At the very least, I’d like to see her in a healthy relationship, where her partner does not feign support by telling her she’s wrong about every opinion or feeling she ever has, especially when it comes to her weight.

This is something that the pilot shows us, in a way, with her palpable emotional connection with her brother. Kate asks Kevin to tell her to lose the weight, and he can’t, or won’t, do it. Toby, on the other hand, has no problem stepping all over her emotional life. That’s not as obvious until later, but we see the early roots of that manipulation from their first encounter at an OA meeting in the pilot.

There is also the grating first scene, where Jack — who, over time on This Is Us becomes a model example of how people can cause hurt with their personal demons but are also capable of great love and self-awareness — wants to get romantic with his heavily-pregnant wife. It’s supposed to be cute, and it is — but before her water breaks, ending the encounter, you kind of just want him to leave her alone and let her sleep. But that’s a minor criticism.

While I’ll put the pilot on my list of “greatest episodes,” it doesn’t contain what is, by far, may favourite scene in This Is Us. That would be the therapy scene from deep in Season 2, where it’s revealed no one in the Pearson family really wants to talk about their demons except Kevin, and no one really has the same perspective on what their upbringing was really like. That scene is posted below.

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