This Is Us is like a TV adaptation of a slam poem: so dependent on emotional outbursts and heavy-handed symbolism that you're captivated by the raw, emotional purge.
The cute actors don't hurt, either. The fourth season of the NBC hit has brought troublesome news about Rebecca Pearson's (Mandy Moore) deteriorating memory, Kevin Pearson's (Justin Hartley) hopeless search for a fairy tale romance, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby's (Chris Sullivan) conflicts over raising a blind son, and Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) growing anxiety under the pressures of his job and family. But one of the most disturbing aspects of This Is Us is Kevin Pearson's twisted concept of love.
For instance, this season's "Light and Shadows" episode reinforced how committed Kevin is to re-enacting his parents' perfect love story, as told by Jack while Kevin was growing up. Of course, through intermittent flashbacks to young Rebecca and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), we see that they had an imperfect romance riddled with Rebecca's parents' classism (and later racism) and Jack's PTSD (and later alcoholism). Kevin, who's insecure that he's nearing the ripe old age of 40, hires a matchmaker so he can meet his goals of being married with his first child on the way within half a year (the Big Three were born on August 31, with each season premiere of This Is Us focusing on the Pearson kids' birthdays). He tackles his mission with gusto, but after a few bad dates with a Ph.D holder who's "way too smart" for him and a perky, casual racist, he gives up.
Then, the moment (literally, the exact moment, because TV timing is all about obvious irony) Kevin says he's leaving his love life up to the universe, he spots a beautiful girl named Lizzie (Sophia Bush) across the coffee shop. Apart from the fact that Lizzie doesn't live in LA and is leaving town the next day (and she keeps receiving incessant calls from her mother), the two hit it off spectacularly. They banter, they tease, they shoot enticing side-eye at each other, and Kevin proceeds to utterly freak her out with his over-the-top romantic gestures–because seriously dude, you got private access to the Hollywood Bowl and convinced John Legend, the "sexiest man alive," to play an entire concert just for you and your girl? Actually, she's not your girl, because regardless of TV timing this sequence of events couldn't have happened in more than five hours, and the five hour anniversary is not meant for a private concert with her favorite singer in an empty Hollywood amphitheater.
First, that's the kind of serial-killer-level of intensity that straddles the border between creepy and sweet. Kevin shows the kind of immediate hyper-focus on an object of affection, particularly one he doesn't know well (or at all), that indicates he isn't seeing the person in front of him but rather an ideal version he's created in his mind. He's repeatedly placed himself in the middle of his ex-wife Sophie's life, dropping emotional bombs like "I'm still in love with you...even though it's been like 12 years, and I cheated on you, but here I brought your favorite fries" (which is something, at least). To be fair, Kevin and Sophie reach surprisingly poignant closure in part two of this season's dramatic trilogy of episodes, "A Hell of a Week: Part 2."
Still, obsessive thinking often gets mistaken for "love at first sight," especially in twisted romances a la Twilight and Joe from You. Yes, infatuation is not an uncommon reaction when first meeting someone you're very attracted to. However, it's usually the product of underlying anxiety. Bored psychologists who have studied love–and all our weird behaviors while we're drugged up on it–have pointed out that "love at first sight" is mostly reported by people with "anxious attachment systems," or patterns of being very insecure and needing a lot of reassurance in their relationships. (In other cases, "love at first sight" is largely a label applied retroactively as the result of biased memories). Insecure anxious attachment means individuals often overthink and obsess over small details in a burgeoning relationship, particularly over communication. Cue every scene of Kevin anxiously pacing back and forth while speeding-talking his way through a decision–not to mention his infamous emotional monologues, like showing up on Sophie's doorstep and not letting her say more than his name before professing, "I was head over heels in love with you the moment that I saw you…I never should've let you get away…It's like you were a part of me."
Could this just be lazy writing? Surely. For some reason, the This Is Us writers have honed some sharp, funny, and vulnerable voices for characters like Randall and Beth Pearson, and even Toby, but they've really let Kevin stew in a primordial soup of generic movie-of-the-week tearjerkers. But based on "Light and Shadow," the brightest possibility is that this was intentional so that Kevin's bubble of romance is abruptly and brutally popped when Lizzie confesses that it's not actually her mother who keeps calling but her husband; Kevin is her "hall pass," the one celebrity whom she's allowed to sleep with without her husband considering it to be cheating. Kevin's genuine, over-the-top attempts to form an eternal soul bond with her, within the same afternoon they first meet, freaks her out and guilts her into telling him the truth. In a hilariously cringey exit, Lizzie shuffles out of the Hollywood Bowl while Kevin slumps down in his own disappointment and embarrassment at having gone too far to chase a fantasy.
Kevin has another habit shared by all creepy-intense men: He verges on the razor edge of self-awareness and comes so frustratingly close to getting his sh*t together when something happens to pull him back into his old habits. As he vents on his movie set that he needs to stop trying to force a fairy tale love story to happen, his phone rings to reveal that Sophie is calling him. Why? Because TV timing is amazing, Kevin has one of the lamest character developments in all of primetime, and despite it all we cannot stop rooting for him to find his way. When the midseason finale jumped forward in time to reveal that he does, indeed, celebrate his 40th birthday with an unidentified pregnant fiancee, we rejoiced and scrutinized each one of his relationships to suss out his future wife. While Sophie and Madison remain in the running,
Sure, intense, insecure, and hopelessly romantic men like Kevin Pearson make us cringe inside, but we can't stop watching their desperate antics because we need self-aware fairy tales: the relentless pursuit of a happy ending by someone who isn't sure they deserve it.
Tonight, the Pearson Big Three will meet up at their family cabin after three weeks of revisiting their own separate traumas. What else could happen before the season finale on February 25, 2020?