I’m just going to go ahead and say the thing you’re not supposed to say about the most beloved show on TV right now: I think This Is Us is making a mess of Kevin, and not in a good get-your-ugly-cry-on kind of way.
As a steadfast fan of NBC’s tear-jerking series, I’m not quick to point out its flaws. Like any good fan, I’m strangely protective of it and ready to defend its honor at a moment’s notice. But alas, I must admit I felt a nagging sense of disappointment the minute it became clear Kevin would succumb to “sins of the father” syndrome.
In Season 1, we watched as bits and pieces of Kevin emerged through flashbacks. Growing up, he was the goofball. The ham. The pretty boy. He was rarely taken seriously aside from his looks, and that was a mold he struggled to break free of.
And he did.
So much so that we saw him come full circle by revisiting the set of The Manny, where he’d had his infamous meltdown a year before, to give a lighthearted cameo. It was also a sweet nod to his love for Sophie and the way she has always helped him see (and be) the best version of himself. Moments like this — and the ones where Kevin cradled a sobbing Randall or championed Kate through a crisis — pointed to who Kevin really is.
Then, the revelation that Kevin has become addicted to painkillers reared its ugly head. Here’s the bottom line: Kevin is better than that cliché. Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin, is better than that cliché. And This Is Us is better too.
Sticking him with a storyline in which he plays an actor whose father struggled with addiction and who is now struggling with addiction of his own is a bit too trite. While This Is Us has proven time and again it can take trite and turn it into something beautifully emotive and poignant, this isn’t that.
Instead, it feels like they’re trying too hard to give Kevin — the sibling who was never taken seriously — something serious to deal with. Kate struggles with her body image, her relationship with Rebecca and daddy issues. Randall has the duality of being an adopted child who recently met his bio dad… who died shortly thereafter. Not to mention Randall’s anxiety.
So this addiction arc of Kevin’s kind of just feels like a booby prize. I get it… it’s a cliché because it happens so often in real life. The sons repeat the sins of their fathers. The actor has a drug problem. But still, does everything have to be quite so… literal?
It would have been enough too much if they’d stopped at that. But the show really piles it on by having Kevin return to his hometown.
He makes all the obligatory stops. He drives by his old house and remembering playing in the yard with his dad. He attends his high school to be honored, where he predictably walks the halls and recalls being a student there.
All of this is interwoven with flashbacks showing Kevin with Jack and Rebecca as if the show is hitting us over the head with a hammer: Kevin was under so much pressure! Kevin couldn’t come to terms with his parent’s separation or his father’s alcoholism! We get it; we get it.
When his high school football coach takes the stage to introduce him, even his speech feels contrived. Even more so, of course, when Kevin imagines it is his father delivering the honor.
“I had the pleasure of coaching Kevin for four, well, three-and-a-half years. And in my career, I never saw a kid with so much natural talent, confidence, charisma… but he caught some tough breaks. Suffered some losses. And that’s when he really showed himself to be a star. He fought through the adversity and the heartache, and he found success on another path. He is, for all you kids out there, a living, breathing example of outer and inner strength. This kid is tough as hell.”
And there you have it: the standard everyone has been holding Kevin to since he was the first of the Big Three to take steps. That kid is tough as hell. But by the end of Episode 8, Kevin is literally on a lawn sobbing and screaming out in emotional and mental agony.
He goes to Randall’s to finally ask for help only to be told Kate lost her baby. And once again, his pain is eclipsed by the people who orbit him.
This Is Us‘ popularity is rooted in how life-affirming it is — not because it is always happy, but because it is real. However, that reality is typically nuanced and deep. That’s the thing, though… Kevin’s demons are already nuanced and deep. He didn’t even need the addiction arc for us to believe he would wind up at that specific heartbreaking point, sobbing on a veritable stranger’s lawn.
It’s not that Hartley doesn’t do the addiction arc justice. He plays the hell out of it. But this episode devoted entirely to Kevin proves that the character, like Hartley, is capable of incredible depth. They both deserve more than a cliché.