Thursday, February 21, 2019

This Is Us. 3.13: “Our Little Island Girl”

“Sister-cousin, I know you inside and out and there is something bigger going on with you and you need to find a way to talk about it.”
- Zoe

We’ve been waiting for a Beth-centric episode and it is finally here! When last we saw Beth, she was heading to DC to help out her mom who bruised her hip after being knocked into by some unruly high school kids at the school where she’s a principal. Beth picks up Zoe and they head and along the way, Beth admits she hasn’t told her mom about being laid off yet. Given that it’s been months, that’s kind of surprising and Zoe calls her out on it. She says that Beth clams up around her mother because her mom is terrifying. When we meet Mrs. Clark in the present, she insists she doesn’t need help and thinks they are foolish for worrying. She doesn’t want to slow down or even consider retiring. And while they are eating, Mrs. Clark starts in on Zoe for not having a path and career like Beth, prompting Beth to blurt out that she got laid off. Her mother jumps in and says they’ll look at new firms and spruce up her resume in the morning. But we can all tell that Beth isn’t interested in doing that and as we look back at her childhood, we learn why.

We first find young Beth around eight or nine years old (and my God if she doesn’t look a lot like Tess from season 1). Good job casting folks at “This Is Us”. Then again, they always do a really awesome job of casting people to play different characters at different ages. Beth gets accepted to a prestigious ballet academy but her mother is skeptical both at the time commitment and the cost. But Beth’s dad is all gung ho to see his baby girl dance. As he keeps saying, she danced before she walked so it’s got to be in her blood. The owner of the company explains that the goal of all the classes is to participate in a senior showcase and hopefully get recruited by one of the major ballet companies worldwide. With this dream in mind, Beth manages to get her parents to agree. She works hard but she isn’t exactly the best in class. She’s not horrible but she’s got to push harder than some of the other girls.

When Beth gets to be a teenager, her teacher tells her that she’s not built like typical dancers and if she wants the solo in the showcase she’s going to have to push herself even harder. She also sees that he brings in another Black dancer (who Beth feels has it easier because routines just come that much faster to her). When she gets home that night, her parents drop the bomb on her that her dad has developed lung cancer (despite not spoking as Zoe points out). Beth thinks it is her fault that her dad got sick because he had to work extra hard to make enough money to support her training. Her mother brushes that off as ridiculous and she’s no nonsense that he is going to get chemo treatment because that’s what the doctor said. Inevitably, the cancer claims him and Beth is understandably upset. Though, I think she was more upset by how her mother just kept going as if they didn’t need time to grieve. When Beth doesn’t get the solo like she’d hoped, her mother points out that she can’t continue to pay for the classes so Beth’s path is going to need to change and she’ll need to go to college. Eventually, we see Beth at a freshman mixer where she bumps into none other than Randall Pearson!

In the present, Zoe wakes Beth up in the middle of the night and they end up getting high off some weed Zoe hid behind a picture. They have some real talk where Beth comments about how they don’t’ acknowledge how much Zoe has accomplished. Zoe admits that while everyone else saw Beth’s mom as harsh and strict, Zoe saw her as someone who wouldn’t hurt her the way her own father had. Zoe also points out that Beth clearly has something big she’s trying to deal with and she needs to get it out before it just explodes. So, Beth eventually confronts her mother. She points out that her mom didn’t have to rip dance away right after her father died. Her mom in turn explains that her mother fought for her to have every opportunity her brothers did and that Beth’s mom wanted to give her kids that same chance and push them to do well. But she acknowledges she shouldn’t have pushed Beth away from dance like she did. By the end of the episode, Beth realizes what’s been missing in her life and she seizes on it. She shares it with Randall who in typical Pearson fashion is supportive. She wants to get back into dancing. She wants to teach and if the glimpses of the future are any indication, she’s going to be doing it for a long time. It still makes me worry that Beth and Randall aren’t in a good place in the future. I just hope we get to see more of that sooner rather than later. I want to know what lays ahead for the Pearson clan!

I thought this was a good episode overall and finally gave us some insight into who Beth is and how she ended up the way she is. I really liked getting that glimpse into her past and as usual, the acting was top notch. I got a little emotional when Beth and her mom finally had their talk to sort out the drama that had been lingering between them. I also liked to see that Beth’s mom at least acquiesced to using a walker at the school. This was a necessary step along the path of the larger Pearson clan and I look forward to seeing more of Beth’s family. Maybe we’ll get to meet her brother and sisters next time.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

This Is Us 3.12: “Songbird Road: Part Two”

“You jump at the chance to save everyone else on the planet. He’s our uncle. He’s family and suddenly you have to be home for dinner?”
- Kevin

If you thought this week’s half of “Songbird Road” was going to be uplifting like Randall finding and welcoming William into his life and home, you, like Kevin, were going to be sorely mistaken. The Big Three manage to convince Nicky to go with them back to their hotel but he’s clearly not comfortable in the strange surroundings. He pulls the shades, checks all the closet ands and bathroom and locks the door. Kevin insists that they have to help their uncle get help for his alcoholism and PTSD and very quickly he’s left with telling Rebecca the latest. It turns out Kevin stays up all night trying to find veteran’s programs for Nicky. Nicky doesn’t seem overly interested and then things take a turn when Rebecca shows up. She needs answers from her brother-in-law and it isn’t going to be what she’s hoping for. After Kate and Randall head out and Kevin’s attempt to get Nicky into a program fails, Rebecca has a conversation with Nicky. She admits she was scared to meet him because she didn’t want to unravel Jack’s narrative. She tries to connect with Nicky, pointing out that Jack had been newly sober just prior to his death and that he would have found his way back to making amends with his brother at some point if it hadn’t been for that damn fire. And she points out Kevin, too, has been struggling with sobriety. Nicky rightfully points out he’s not going to be treated like a pet project. Not everyone can be fixed or is willing to accept the help.

As Kate and Randall head to the airport so Kate can get home for a doctor’s appointment, she recalls the weekend when Jack went to see Nicky in 1992. It’s interesting to see how all of the family members recall this weekend differently. For Kate, she remembers creating a ridiculous pizza and having a sequin fight with her dad and Randall (while making Valentine’s Day cards for her class. Randall recalls the angst that Jack was going through. We see Jack unable to sleep and Rebecca offer to take Kevin to the mall to get one of his rookie baseball cards signed, leaving Jack home with the other two kids. He’s not really paying much attention to what they are doing and instead goes to sit by himself outside and then work out to try and relieve some stress. When he gets back inside to see the mess the kids have made with the pizza and the cards, he kind of snaps and ends up throwing a plate against the wall. Randall recalls the darker side of that weekend, while Kate only remembers the good times. Randall points out that Jack did his job by making her remember the good stuff. They do decide to go swing by where the old house used to be and meet the new family who lives there (who has their own issues) but I don’t think they are particularly relevant.

Speaking of Kevin and Rebecca in the past, we see that Kevin—for all his whining about being ignored—isn’t thrilled to spend time with just his mom. He pitches a fit when she wants to get out of line and get food. And when Rebecca spot shim chatting with the player from a far, he refuses to tell her what they talked about. So, she resorts to asking the player and we see that Kevin has the capacity to be caring and thoughtful to others (and he knew how libraries worked). It’s hat desire to help people that is going to Kevin in trouble in the present. He’s devastated when Nicky turns down his help. He goes back to Nicky’s place to try and clean it up and he leaves a frustrated voicemail for Zoe before sitting down and taking a huge step backwards. He ends up downing most of the bourbon sitting on the table. The look on his face as he’s doing it and after just breaks your heart. He knows he’s faltered but we also know that he doesn’t handle that sort of slip well. He isn’t one to seek support from others even when he needs it most. I just hope he’s able to recognize that he needs help and it is okay to lean on other people. I suspect that things with Zoe are going to take a nosedive as well once she finds out what’s he done. I half expected him to admit what he’d done to Rebecca at the end of the episode; he looked so despondent and ashamed.

I liked how this week’s episode showed the same weekend from various perspectives as the characters reflected on it in the present. It was a different approach from last season’s Big Three individual-centric episodes leading up to Jack’s death. I also like that it showed how people remember the same situation differently, colored by perception and what was going on in their own lives. I’m disappointed to see that Kevin has taken that step backwards in his journey but it also quite clear that he didn’t know what he was expecting to get out of the whole journey looking into Jack’s past. I get that he’s mad at his father for keeping all of this from them. It hurts to know the people you looked up to as a kid aren’t perfect. But it will be interesting to see where the show goes from here. I know we have a Beth-centric episode coming up and I am very much looking forward to seeing the life experiences that shaped Beth. I also suspect we haven’t seen the last of Nicky. Now that he’s out there in the world and the Pearsons know about him, there is a chance to revisit him, although unlike with some of the other characters, I’m not sure we are going to need to get that added backstory and information. We explored him pretty in-depth.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Good Place 2.11: “The Burrito"

“If this isn’t a test, then it’s something way worse: a choice that we have to make.”
- Chidi

You can definitely tell that we are getting to the end of the season with the characters reaching what we’ve been led to believe is an endpoint (and again, I’m not sure where they are going to go after this). When last we saw, the core four were being sent through the portal to the Judge and Michael sacrificed himself to let Eleanor get away. Admittedly, I thought this episode showed the most character growth for the most characters (albeit not all because lets be real, I don’t think Jason is ever going to be more than the dumb stoner kid).

Michael gets berated by Shawn and Bad Janet (which is such a minor part of the storyline that it doesn’t need more than a few sentences dedicated to it). In fact, it turns out Bad Janet is actually Good Janet in disguise and she and Michael abscond to the Judge’s chamber by the end of the episode. The real meat of the episode revolves around the core four humans trying to plead their case to the Judge.

At first, the gang thinks the Judge is a burrito (just because the Bad Place can do weird things) only to find out the Judge is a real being. She’s kind of quirky and a mix between what we’ve seen in the fake Good Place and the real Bad Place. She is more neutral than the demons and everything and not as nice as Janet. I like her. She says she has to deny their case because they just showed up and didn’t file the proper paperwork but the moment Tahani opens her mouth, the Judge is enthralled with her accent and agrees to hear the case. She ends up issuing them each a test to see if they can make it into the Good Place. Eleanor negotiates that the decision will be all or nothing. The Judge thinks this is a ridiculous idea but I happen to think it shows Eleanor’s growth. She’s thinking about more than just herself for once. So, they each get tested.

Jason and Chidi’s tests are kind of ridiculous, but they do fit their personalities and the flaws that landed them in the Bad Place initially. Chidi is tasked with picking a hat (It takes him over an hour to choose one…thus failing) and Jason is supposed to try and exercise control with a videogame where he’s told if he plays, he has to play against his favorite team and win. He doesn’t realize that he could have opted not to play the game at all. Something tells me Jason would never have gotten that possibility at all. He’s just not that bright. Thus, he loses as well. So things aren’t looking good for our gang.

Tahani’s task is to walk down a hallway to a door and along the way she’ll pass closed rooms where various people (from Winston Churchill and Steven Hawking to her parents) are sharing how they truly feel about Tahani. She makes it almost to the end without going inside but she then comes to the door with her parents and she can’t resist. They are pretty terrible people, too. Something tells me when they kick the bucket; they’ll end up in the Bad Place, too. They basically say that she’s never been as good as her sister and she never will be. But in the end, Tahani realizes that she has accepted that she’d never be good enough for them and she’s actually found happiness in the afterlife, including eating a Cheeto. But, because she went into one of the rooms, she too fails her test. I was honestly proud of her for confronting her parents and being self-aware enough to accept the things she couldn’t change and move forward with her existence.

This leaves us with Eleanor. At first it seems like she and Chidi are given the same test in that they are given tokens granting them entrance to the Good Place but they can only go just the two of them. They’d have to leave Tahani and Jason behind. At first it seems like Chidi is doing his usual thing and waffling back and forth but then he says they should forget ethics for a second and consider their own happiness together. This is the clue Eleanor needs to realize this is a fake Chidi because he’d never toss ethics aside or put his friends’ welfare behind his own satisfaction. She says she isn’t going to the Good Place (even though she realized that she wasn’t going there in the test already). She won’t leave her friends behind. This is a huge step for Eleanor and I’m glad to see she is actually becoming a better person. She does lie about her test (and cuts off the Judge when she is about to applaud Eleanor for passing her test). Eleanor didn’t want to hurt her friends by letting them know she’d passed and they all failed. It seems they are on their way to the Bad Place when Janet and Michael up, teeing us up for the season finale.

I may have had my issues with the plot and pacing of this season but I have to admit this penultimate episode was pretty strong. We almost didn’t even need the Michael subplot. It really didn’t add much. But, I was pleased to see how far most of the core group has come. I mean, Chidi was actually able to make a decision and Tahani was able to accept that people didn’t like her and realize who her real friends are. And Eleanor has finally found her tribe and is willing to fight for it. For all the bumps in the road to get here, I’m pleased we did and I am genuinely intrigued to see what happens in the finale and where the show goes in season 3.

The Good Place 2.10: "Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent"

Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.”

This particular episode of “The Good Place” moved the plot along nicely while also providing some more insight into a few of the characters The gang find themselves in Bad Place HQ, and they face a series of challenges as they try to escape. I especially liked the focus on Chidi in this episode. We really dive a bit more into his neuroses, and we see him work to help the group in spite of them. We also get to learn some more about how the Bad Place operates. I always appreciate some good worldbuilding, and this one’s got some creative elements, like pin-activated portals to judges. Also a museum dedicated to human torture (well, that’s not so cool, but you can’t say it’s not creative). Overall, it was a great blend of plot, worldbuilding, and character work, which is really what television at its best should be.

The episode picks up with our human crew (and Michael) on the train. Michael reveals his plan to the humans. He wants to take them to the Judge, who can decide if they have enough points to escape the Bad Place. To get to the Judge, though, they’ve got to take a portal from Bad Place HQ, activated by a thumbs-down lapel pin. Michael is going to have to find enough lapel pins for the whole crew, though, which is going to take some time. He decides to stash the humans in the Hall of Low-Grade Crappiness at the Museum of Human Misery. The Museum is pretty clever. There are exhibits exhibiting the first time humans did all sorts of stupid things that just annoy others, like the first guy to send a dick pic.

Unfortunately, Sean has other plans that are going to make life significantly more difficult for Michael and the humans. He has planned a raid on Mindy St. Claire’s house, even though that’s technically illegal. He’s going to bring the humans back by force. Of course, the jig is going to be up when the raid happens and Sean learns that our crew actually isn’t in the Medium Place right now after all. When Michael learns of the plan, he does his best to play it cool, but he’s really panicking on the inside and trying to get those thumbs down pins as fast as possible so they can all be out of Bad Place HQ when the raid goes down.

To make matters worse, the usually sparsely attended Hall of Low-Grade Crappiness is going to be filled with demons on this particular day. The Bad Place Powers that Be have decided to launch a new museum exhibit dedicated to Michael’s experiment and its inhabitants, and they’re having a party to celebrate the opening. Our humans try to pretend to be fellow Bad Place torturer demons, and they each have very specific characters they are playing. Tahani is especially enthusiastic about this, considering she’s a wannabe actress. She’s very excited to put all that training to work. Chidi is the least enthusiastic. He thinks lying is completely unacceptable from a moral perspective, so he won’t lie under any circumstances. He won’t even tell white lies. It’s all truth all the time with Chidi. This gets even more difficult when a demon named Chet (played by Kristen Bell’s real life husband Dax Shepard) is convinced that Chidi is a demon he used to work with named Trent. Trent always had the best torture ideas, and Chet and his buddies are in need of some help with an especially difficult torture subject. Chidi just barely holds it together through these interactions.

Interestingly, it’s Eleanor who finally figures out a way to get through to Chidi. She mentions a philosophy called “moral particularism,” which holds that specific moral principles aren’t necessary for moral action. Basically, she tells Chidi that one can decide what to do in a situation on a case by case basis. Chidi wants to help his friends, so he sucks it up and really tries to be “Trent.” He suggests to Chet that he and his buddies torture the especially difficult human by forcing them to read philosophy books, of course. This was amusing, but I think it also showed some serious character growth for Chidi. Chidi has always been so indecisive about important things and so wedded to specific moral principles that it was often hard for him to function. This is the first time I can really recall seeing him try to fight through all that, and I enjoyed watching it.

Everything seems to come to a head all at once near the end of the episode. First, Michael finds himself in the Bad Place situation room as the raid on Mindy St. Claire’s house is happening, and the audio quickly makes it clear that all did not go as planned. The SWAT team basically just finds Mindy having sex with Derek (complete with wind chime genitals) and nobody else. Michael is immediately suspected as being up to no good, so he hightails it out of there. Around the same time, the big exhibit is revealed at the museum. The exhibit features animatronics of the four humans, and the demons who had just interacted with them recognize them right away. Before the chaos really kicks up, the humans are able to escape with the help of a Molotov cocktail courtesy of Jason. He’d been talking about Molotov cocktails all episode, so it was pretty amusing to see that throughline finally pay off. It was basically Chekhov’s gun at that point, so it had to pay off. It definitely got a good laugh out of me.

The climax of the episode happens as Michael and the humans all meet up at the portal. Michael starts handing out the pins, and everybody starts jumping through, anxious to escape before they’re caught. When Eleanor is about to jump, however, Michael realizes he’s one pin short. After some quick thought, he decides to give his own pin to Eleanor. Eleanor jumps through, and Michael is left behind, awaiting whatever punishment Sean and his crew come up with. I thought this showed a lot of character growth on the part of Michael, who hadn’t seemed especially selfless in the past. In fact, there’s still a tiny part of me that wonders if Michael doesn’t have some ulterior motive, but for now at least, I appreciate the sacrifice.