Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

There’s an image in “Number One” that helped me understand Kevin Pearson more than the past 25 episodes of This Is Us combined. It’s the image of a 17-year-old football star standing in his kitchen in a dumb little crop top, leaning against a dining room chair with all the swagger he can muster, snarkily telling his dad, “It’s just Pitt.” The This Is Us childhood flashbacks have done a pretty good job sketching in who Randall and Kate were as kids and how those early personalities grew into their adult ones. But so far Kevin has remained far more opaque than his two siblings. And that’s because Kevin isn’t the kind of adult who had his personality shaped in childhood. He’s the kind of adult who has his shaped in high school. So it’s no wonder Kevin didn’t fully click into place until we finally saw his teenage years onscreen.

On paper, high school Kevin’s storyline seems like it should be the tritest thing in the world—“confident quarterback sees his dreams dashed by an injury” is high school drama cliché 101. Yet in practice, This Is Us manages to imbue that familiar story with beautifully observed details that make it come alive. From Rebecca’s “I panicked and added orange zest” line to Kate cleaning her dog’s pee at an inopportune moment to the way Jack and his teenage son fight, this episode captures a palpably real version of suburban high school life. And the person who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that is Logan Shroyer as teenage Kevin.

Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

Shroyer is utterly fantastic in this episode. He perfectly embodies the entitled energy of a teenage sports star without reducing Kevin to being just an asshole. The way he sort of laughs when Jack tells him the news that he’ll never play football again is the perfect summation of a kid who’s so used to success that the concept of failure is an intangible threat. And when the truth does start to sink in, Shroyer is equally great at playing Kevin’s vulnerabilities. There’s a moment in which teenage Kevin seems to convince himself that if can just apologize for being such a prick to his dad, he’ll be able to magically play football again—as if life was a sibling squabble mediated by his parents. He’s sorry he was a jerk. Now can he have his knee back, please?

Until this episode, I hadn’t realized just how little time we’d spent with the high school-era versions of The Big Three and I’m now really excited about the prospect of getting to know them better. In fact, the high school stuff in this episode is so good that I almost wish the whole thing had been set in that timeline. But we also spend time with present-day Kevin as he heads back to his old high school to receive an alumni award, mostly because he doesn’t have anything better to do now that he’s isolated himself from his friends and family in his downward spiral of addiction.

This is probably the most effective episode yet in terms of depicting Kevin’s struggles with addiction, but This Is Us is still depending far too much on lengthy shots of Kevin staring blankly into the distance to convey that story. It’s a narratively uninteresting choice and giving Kevin anyone to talk to immediately makes his story more engaging. That’s certainly the case when the episode pairs him with high-school-nerd-turned-charitable-plastic-surgeon Charlotte Everly. Kevin’s desperation still comes through, but Charlotte’s presence adds more nuance to the situation. She reveals that even though high school Kevin was an entitled jock, he was also the kind of guy who was nice to random people in the hallways and who looked out for girls at parties. That adult Kevin remembers his teenage flaws but not those moments of kindness is telling in its own way. Overall, I could’ve used far more of their pairing and far less of Kevin sweatily starring into the distance.

Thankfully, there are two scenes that really elevate the present-day Kevin storyline. The first features Kevin alone on a football field describing the journey that brought him to where he is today. The scene runs the risk of feeling like an exposition dump, but it works because it serves the dual purpose of demonstrating just how self-aware Kevin actually is. He may have spent most of his life being seen as either a “dumb jock” or a “dumb movie star,” but he understands his place in the world more than anyone realizes. Kevin’s well aware of the fact that his life is a case study in failing upwards despite his penchant for self-sabotage. He found comfort after Jack’s death by marrying Sophie, then cheated on her and destroyed their marriage. He replaced his dreams of football success with a big Hollywood career but threw that away with his Manny breakdown. And even after he won Sophie back and landed a major movie role, he fell right back into a new form of self-sabotage with pills.

Photo: This Is Us (NBC)

I said in the opening of this review that Kevin’s personality is defined more by his high school experience than his childhood one, but that’s only sort of true. Adult Kevin’s entitled swagger definitely comes from his days as a high school superstar, but the path that led him to becoming a star athlete in the first place started way earlier. Young Kevin may have been referred to as “number one” in his family, but he more often than not saw himself as the odd man out. Back in the first season episode “The Pool,” 8-year-old Kevin yelled at his parents for ignoring his scary experience in the deep end: “You’re so busy making sure that Kate’s not eating too much and Randall’s not too adopted, and meanwhile where’s Kevin? Oh. Guess what? He’s dead!”

After a childhood spent feeling invisible, high school Kevin made himself impossible to ignore. He engineered his life so that even when his dad was off touring colleges with Randall, he still had hundreds of fans cheering him on at his games. And when his football dreams were dashed by a catastrophic knee injury, Kevin engineered a new situation in which he was once again surrounded by all the external validation he could ask for. Only now that’s become a prison he can’t escape. His attempts at a self-flagellating speech are met with cheers by a high school audience who’s just excited to see The Manny in their auditorium. That Kevin is deeply aware of all that makes his story much more interesting than if he was blind to his own foibles.

But the scene that really elevates Kevin’s present-day storyline is his breakdown on Charlotte’s lawn, which is also Justin Hartley’s best performance on the series to date. The scene combines present-day Kevin’s self-awareness (he knows he was a total jerk to Charlotte) with high school Kevin’s sense of desperate, naive bargaining. As a teenager, Kevin couldn’t stand the sight of his father kneeling on the floor asking for help with his addiction struggles. But as an adult, Kevin finds himself in an even more desperate place. Jack’s necklace is more important to Kevin than his pride, his dignity, or even his desire for more pills. And through that missing necklace, Jack reaches across the years and saves his son from taking a drastic, illegal step by filling a forged prescription. In the hospital, Jack tells his teenage son that the necklace will help him in a time of hopelessness. And that’s exactly what it does two decades later.

“Number One” doesn’t come close to rivaling “Memphis” in terms of being the best episode This Is Us has produced. But in just one hour, the showmanages to transform its least interesting character into someone whose story I genuinely want to watch. If that’s what the series can do with a Kevin-centric episode, I can’t wait to see what’s in store in the next two Big Three-centric outings.


Stray observations

  • I feel like if one of your alumni goes on to become a hugely famous actor, you’d probably focus a lot more on that than on his high school football career.
  • This Is Us has done a remarkably poor job of showing the closeness Kevin and Kate supposedly had as kids and teens. Yes, Kate holding Kevin’s hand as he left the hospital was sweet, but it also seems like pretty standard brother/sister stuff, not a magical twin connection people still talk about years later.
  • I like that This Is Us keeps finding ways to have Milo Ventimiglia interact with the “present day” cast. First there was Randall’s mushroom trip, then Jack and William hung out in Randall’s dream, and now Kevin imagines him onstage at the alumni ceremony.
  • Teen Randall’s nickname for Kate is “LL Cool K.”
  • I loved the actress who played Charlotte Everly and I hope the show brings her back again.
  • The episode ends with the heartbreaking reveal that Kate has lost her baby, which serves as the setup for next week’s Kate-centric episode.

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