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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Superstore: Labor (S 1 E 11)

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

There’s a lot to love about Superstore, from its hauntingly familiar set that you swore you just visited a few hours ago, to its sharp dialogue and insightful storylines. None of that was more true than in Season 1, when the show shone a long-overdue light on the everyday world of working retail.

The pay is low, the benefits non-existent, and there is no typical employee. The workforce is diverse, not just in terms of identity but also class and life experience. Superstore makes the point that everyone can work customer service, and everyone does; since everyone is in the same boat, there’s a common acceptance of your fellow employee. (Later feuds between Sandra and Carol over an unconscious boyfriend notwithstanding).

I got hooked on Superstore during that scene in the pilot when Amy (America Ferrera) tells Jonah (Ben Feldman) she wears a different nametag every day because she doesn’t like random strangers coming up to her and chatting like they’re buddies. Superstore is consistently clever and funny that way, its characters well-developed and interesting.

Unlike some other shows I could name (**cough** Westworld) you’re invested in these people, even if by the end of Season 3 you’re kind of wondering why Jonah is still sticking around when you know, if this were reality, he would have started a booth at the farmers’ market, gone to work for a political party or returned to business school by now. Amy would have found a way to finance her education or started a more lucrative job once her daughter was older and able to take care of herself. But this isn’t reality, after all, it’s a television show, that, particularly in Season 1, has something to say about the working class.

In the first scene of the finale of the truncated 11-episode first season, Cheyenne, a heavily pregnant teen whose boyfriend had set up a flash mob in the premiere to propose marriage, almost gives birth in the store. Later, when she interrupts a staff meeting with her labored breathing — although she’s not in labor — Jonah comes up with a brilliant idea. He talks Amy into calling Cloud 9 management to ask for maternity leave. She’s reluctant, but he figures they have nothing to lose. On the phone with head office, they make the mistake of offhandedly saying the word “union,” which gets them a visit from management and a half-day seminar about how great it is to work at Cloud 9.

When “Steve,” the “Labor Relations Consultant,” asks the assembled employees who they think he is, Mateo, in his Season 1 eager-to-please phase, enthusiastically offers, “a union buster!” That he is, but in this episode Superstore smartly shows the unique predicament of this group of workers. Cheyenne gets maternity leave, of sorts, when the store’s affable boss Glenn gives her paid suspension as punishment for eventually giving birth in the store’s aisle. After Glenn is immediately fired, the episode ends with a satisfying conclusion that’s picked up with the first episode of Season 2.

There are no bad episodes of Superstore, so it’s tough to pick just one as my favorite. But it’s hard to beat the pharmacist-with-a-god-complex, Tate, asking Cheyenne, in the midst of Braxton-Hicks contractions, about any medications she’s taken. Satisfied Tums won’t harm the baby, Tate walks away, leaving Cheyenne and the rest of the employees and onlookers to fend for themselves.

“That’s it?”

“I’m a pharmacist.

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Older and Far Away (S 6 E 14)

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

A lot happened in Seasons 4 and 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I know this because I skipped ahead from Season 3 to 6 and it was a totally different show.

This was back when binge-watching meant gathering up DVDs, and the dear friend who’d lent me Seasons 1 to 3 — while I was in the midst of a minor depression and had no desire to watch a “vampire show” — only had 6 and 7, and left me on the hunt for the seasons in the middle.

I got back to them, eventually, and had that clever introduction to everyone’s Buffy-character-they-love-to-hate, Dawn.

Poor Dawn. She was miserable and mopey, but she also was created out of some grand astronomical event, her mother was dead and her sister killed vampires. Not an easy life, and it would be easy to see sorrowful Dawn, in a moment of vulnerability, let her guard down to a guideance counselor who offered a listening ear.

We find out later in “Older and Far Away,” that she’d been tricked, in typical Buffy-demon fashion: enacting “justice” by imposing a punishment with far-reaching and unpleasant effects.

The title is from the J.G. Ballard novel Empire of the Sun, which I haven’t read, but apparently involves a young boy who experiences an extended period away from his parents during wartime. When they are reunited, he feels a lack of emotional intimacy.

“As Dr. Ransome stood formally on the terrace in his American uniform, Jim had wanted to explain to his parents everything that he and the doctor had done together, but his mother and father had been through their own war. For all their affection for him, they seemed older and far away.” (J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, p. 278)

This is my favorite Buffy episode, although I often find it hard to pinpoint exactly why. It moves slowly and the collection of characters goes through a virtual S-graph of emotional experiences. The energy between and among the Scooby gang and a few strangers shifts in subtle but dramatic ways. It is compelling, particularly in the second half, and does an extraordinary job of advancing the plot in a quiet, but meaningful, way.

In the beginning, the gang is meeting up at Buffy’s house to celebrate her birthday. There are a few unexpected guests: Xander and Anya bring a cute young man in a red shirt, Richard, as a possible love interest for Buffy. She’s invited her friend Sophie, from work. Spike shows up unannounced, bringing along his friend Clem whom Buffy remembered from that poker game where the stakes were kittens.

Despite the mismatch of personnel, everyone gets along and settles into a peaceful environment of mutual acceptance. No one seems to care about Clem’s “skin condition,” Sophie’s multiple allergies, or Richard’s general naivete about the whole world of magic and demons — a world one would think the entire town of Sunnydale would understand by this point. The group’s playing games and no one wants to leave.

Until they realize, the next morning, that they can’t leave. They are trapped in the house, and will be for another two days. Sophie will begin to panic. Anya will respond to the cramped quarters by pressuring Willow to use her magic skills, even though she’s in recovery. Viewers find out Willow’s not gotten rid of all of her magic supplies. Dawn’s penchant for stealing from The Magic Box will come out in dramatic fashion, with Anya seeming more hurt than angry.

The group experiences, more than anything, time — a point made by Halfrek in the last scenes when she at first refuses to lift the curse. “All you’ve got is time,” she tells them. Over those few days, Tara finds a neutral space to connect with Willow, Anya turns to Xander in the face of fear, and Buffy finally stops running around long enough to listen to Dawn. At the end, everyone leaves, except Buffy, who stays home with her long-suffering sister.

Star Trek TNG: Journey’s End (S 7 E 20)

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

The true aficionados know that Star Trek: The Next Generation barely qualified as science fiction. The fact that it was so popular in its day proved it didn’t really have a place in the true geek niche. Every Thursday night in university, I would gather with my dorm mates in the common room and watch the show. Back then, everyone watched TNG.

But not everyone loved “Journey’s End,” which I remember first seeing in that very common room, seated in uncomfortable metal chairs with barely-padded, scratchy upholstery (this was the early 1990s, long before dorms became almost enviable places to live, stylish and sleek.) I was captivated. Others were not.

What appealed to me then were the New Agey elements, the infusion of faux-Indigenous sensibilities, the acknowledgment of colonialism once again rearing its ugly head. The ideas about destiny, making amends for the actions of ancestors, that there are links that go back and forward generations, and that one could literally step out of time, were infectious, enthralling to me. I accepted these ideas already, and felt maybe for the first time the prime time space fest — before obsessed with concepts derived from the “hard” sciences like wormholes and warp drive — was speaking my language.

Now, I love the episode for different reasons. It is a deep examination of hierarchy, power, and the limitations on choice that are the byproducts of social conformity. By having a career, you’re making a trade off: you get a place in the structure, as long as you play by the rules. It is one of the only times I can remember in the Star Trek universe when those rules, so fundamental to the military-style organization of the franchise, were directly challenged by one of its own.

The assumption in Star Trek was that the hierarchy of the Federation was benevolent and led by morally blameless individuals. A fantasy, of course, but I can’t remember another time in the Star Trek universe when a character seemed to acknowledge that within the show itself, by questioning the actions of superiors. That’s what’s particularly striking about “Journey’s End.” Wesley is not just sick of following rules and regulations. He wants to do what’s morally right.

Not only does the Federation hierarchy prevent him from doing what’s morally right; his superiors up the chain of command admit that their actions are wrong. But they have orders to follow, and they are willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of an entire group of people in order to make peace with another species. When Picard meets with Anthwara, the leader of the Indigenous group that is going to be forcibly removed so the planet can be given to the Cardassians, it’s not to hear him out. He goes to the settlement, Counselor Troi in tow, to convince him they should be ok with being relocated. There is nothing particularly moral about that action, but Picard is following orders that have come several ladders down the chain of command. Even his direct superior, Admiral Nechayev, admits she doesn’t agree with the plan.

The episode clearly shows the level of socialization expected of Starfleet officers, or at least of Wesley Crusher onboard the Enterprise. Even on vacation, he’s made to show up at a reception, in uniform. When he talks back to LaForge in Engineering, he’s referred to as “cadet,” a kind of slur that reminds Wesley it’s position in the hierarchy that matters, not the validity of moral choices. And as tight as the hold the hierarchy has on Wesley, as easy it is for him to relieve it of its power. In a conversation with Picard, where the captain pulls rank, Wesley resigns. He just takes off his communicator and leaves.

It’s a ballsy move. But it sets him up to set off the insurgency, betraying Worf’s trust by telling the community about Starfleet’s intent, information Worf confided in him.

So Wesley drops out, in dramatic fashion. That’s where the episode creates a perfect ending for the arc of this character, who was basically born into Starfleet and never questioned that he would become a Starfleet officer. “Journey’s End” could have just been about Wesley wanting to do something outside the mold created for him by his dead father — that piece is certainly said explicitly when he has a vision during a ritualistic ceremony — but it goes beyond that. Wesley had a distaste for immorality, and he no longer trusted that the hierarchy was always going to do the right thing. A career in Starfleet would mean compromising personal morals not just occasionally, but probably on a regular basis.

There’s an earlier episode in Season 7, “Pegasus,” when Commander Riker gets a surprise visit from his first commanding officer. He has to come face-to-face with an ugly incident from early in his career when he not only disobeyed the rules of Starfleet, but committed a moral wrong. It is tough to imagine Riker ever having pulled a Wesley, as much as he may have been a little bit of a Maverick. Riker ultimately always wanted up the corporate ladder, despite knowing its pitfalls. Wesley, not so much.

It is gutsy to have taken this turn with the character of Wesley, on a show where outsiders to the hierarchy were rarely lauded for their moral compass. The easiest comparison might be Ensign Ro, who thought she found mentorship in Picard and stability in the Starfleet hierarchy before abandoning it as well. But even Ro was always set up to be a challenger to the Federation regime, in a way that Wesley was not. They kept Ro around, it should be said, because the Federation needed her. She could follow her own moral compass and wear that earring only because she suited the objectives of the hierarchy.

“Journey’s End” cleverly shows the other side of authority, where “do as I say” has positive effect. Gul Evek avoids a war with the Federation by telling a subordinate, “those are my orders, carry them out,” before revealing to Picard he lost two children in the previous war. His own moral compass, in that instance, drove him to assert his authority in a way that may have run counter to Cardassian rules of engagement but avoided a deadly conflict.

Wesley promises his mother he’ll “dress warmly on those other planes of existence,” and Captain Picard refers to him by his name instead of his title to say goodbye. He’s now largely alone, but free to live his life without following orders, without the security of the hierarchy and clearly defined expectations.

 

Wayward Pines: Time Will Tell (S 2 E 7)

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

Wayward Pines hasn’t been on television in two years. I know this because it was cancelled back in February, after being off the air for nearly 18 months. The fact that there was still need to officially pull the plug after the show was largely forgotten showed there was a group of people still holding out hope for a Season 3.

I was a member of that group. During one of my extra gigs in 2016, I fangirled over a background performer who told me she’d been on the show. One of the best sets she’d ever been on, she’d said, as I discreetly pushed to ask how she’d gotten the role (she wasn’t interested in divulging).

I stumbled upon Wayward Pines, dismissing it at first as probably too dark and eerie for my taste, but curious after reading the show’s big secret online. Even though I had advance knowledge of the key spoiler, the reveal was nonetheless jaw-dropping, flawlessly executed by Hope Davis (Megan) in Season 1, Episode 5, “The Truth,” to a small group of schoolchildren.

I won’t reveal the spoiler, but it’s central to one of my favorite episodes of the series, “Time Will Tell,” (Season 2, Episode 7).

There was great anticipation of Season 2 after the first installment wrapped, and you could say it went off the rails, but we’ll never really know because the story isn’t finished. M. Night Shyamalan said it was a three-season story, and Season 2 ended on a cliffhanger that might never be resolved. We can’t even go to the books to find out, as Blake Crouch’s trilogy was used up by the end of Season 1.

That said, there were some moments in Season 2 that were extraordinary, offering key insight into fully formed, fully developed and compelling characters that drove a clear but still surprising story. (Westworld, take note). One such moment was the experience of C.J. in Episode 7.

When I first had the idea to blog about my favourite television episodes, I started with this one. And left it at this one. So it’s been revived from my long-stagnant other blog, so we can spread a little bit of the Wayward Pines love.

Originally posted July 25, 2016

Anyone who stuck around for Season 2 of Wayward Pines knew C.J. was important, mysterious, powerful and good. But it was not until this flashback-heavy episode that we learned a little bit about what he’d experienced and why he seemed at once worried about the town’s direction and so embedded in its leadership circle. He was someone who was trusted, even if he seemed, at times, unwilling to trust.

It was C.J. who, over the span of 2,000 years, awoke for 24 hours every two decades to dust, gather media, play chess, talk to apparitions, collect soil samples, converse with the rapidly-declining humans and wrestle with the implications of what this massive project was designed to accomplish. He was the one link of semi-continuous memory that connected humanity’s demise to its rebirth.

At this point, it’s hard to tell if C.J. was ever a true believer. Anyone who stuck around for the rest of the season discovered he was close to David Pilcher and probably, even if he was initially a hired hand, excited about the man’s then-idealistic, soon-to-be-crazy and ill-conceived, vision.

When C.J. has a revealing and tearful conversation with a woman from his past — an imagined conversation, one would assume, unless spirits were visiting C.J. in the concrete bunker where untold numbers of humans were sleeping through humanity’s destruction — she reminds him he’s doing his job. But viewers of Wayward Pines know people ended up in those chambers one of two ways: they were recruited or kidnapped.

It’s hard to believe C.J. was simply hired, and viewers know for certain it took him far less than 100 days of awakenings over the span of 2,000 years to have his doubts.

The world of Wayward Pines requires a great deal of suspended disbelief on the part of viewers. It’s a lot to accept, especially in a world with our rules. This is not a sci-fi fantasy; it’s a drama that asks viewers to believe that, in 2014, the technology existed to suspend human life for two millennia, and that someone had the money, organization, time and skill to pull it off and keep it secret.

Wayward Pines, even in its frustrating moments, ultimately works because of the 42 minutes or so given to each of its characters. When we discover Rebecca was not only Theo’s wife, but the town’s architect, she becomes richer and more compelling, a woman with incredible power she uniquely knows how to yield.

C.J., in “Time Will Tell,” teaches us the depression, loneliness, wisdom and fear that comes from extended contemplation. Few actors could sell it as well as the brilliant Djimon Hounsou, who in a moment made me crave the smell of “to-MAT-oes in the summer.” C.J. was awake for 100 days, a full 24 hours each time. One hundred waking days in a row, entirely alone, to think inside the bunker, to momentarily escape beyond its walls, and to reflect, wonder and have second thoughts about a plan that might not end up being as foolproof as it had once seemed, 2,000 years — and 100 days — before.