Jennifer Morrison plays a struggling military veteran, Asante Blackk is a single father and high school student, and Blake Stadnik brings to life an aspiring blind musician.
Just like the series premiere of "This Is Us" three years ago, Season 4 kicked off by introducing us to four separate storylines. And for three of them, we were introduced to all new characters in all new situations.
So what was going on? Who were these three newcomers and why did they matter? Well, it all came back to Rebecca's opening line about how remarkable it is that someone who was a stranger can become such a huge part of your life story.
And so, the writers decided to flip the script by introducing us to the life stories of these strangers so we can see how the characters we already know and love may come to be a huge part of their story.
We often forget that every character in a story and every person in our lives has a story just as full and rich as the one we've been following, or even the one we're living. It's easy to dismiss them as side characters or supporting players in the narrative we care about, but no one is a side character or a supporting player.
Everyone is the star of their story, and though very few shows bother to tell us the story of those characters, it's exciting and fresh and brave that "This Is Us" had enough confidence in its audience to devote almost an entire episode to telling us the story these characters star in before welcoming them into the Pearson fold, through one means or another.
That said, it wasn't only new faces. We also picked up the story of Jack and Rebecca's courtship with their return from Los Angeles on the world's longest third date, just in time for Jack to try and impress her parents and have an interesting exchange with her father (Tim Matheson).
Invited to a posh country club, Jack wore a borrowed sport coat from a nearby suit store ... and it turns out this is the adorable meet-cute of Jack and Miguel. From the beginning, Miguel proved he was a decent sort of fellow, going out on a limb to help Jack continue to impress this girl. "She worth it?" he asked Jack.
"Man, she's like no one you've ever seen," Jack replied. Considering that we know where this story goes, and who winds up with Rebecca after Jack's passing, there was so much weight and meaning in this exchange.
Knowing the future also took the wind out of Rebecca's father's sails just a bit, as he was both kind a little shitty to Jack. First, he helped him hide the tag of his borrowed suit so as to not make a scene, and then he seemed genuine when he thought that Jack was a decent guy, albeit someone haunted by the demons of his life.
But he was also a practical man, who had no problem saying that he just didn't think Jack was good enough for his little girl. "I want more for her than you can offer Jack. I will do everything I can to stop this," He told Jack, making it clear in no uncertain terms that this was effectively a threat to be kept between men.
So, uh ... how'd that work out for you, fella? Seems like Jack was the best thing that ever happened to her.
The first new character we met was Cassidy, played by Jennifer Morrison, a military woman we watch making deals in the middle of the war zone, only to have the military bomb the very village she was seeking to help. At least her asset survived, right? Somehow, we suspect we may not have seen the last of this woman and her child.
Unfortunately, Cassidy's homecoming is not warm and fuzzy, as she can't shake the horror of her role in the decimation of a village. So she turns to drink and follows a path of self-destruction too common to veterans of combat, costing her family and everything else.
The character is beautifully portrayed by Morrison, who carries that haunted weight of war in her face and body language. This is a woman flailing and lost, who takes a chance at the last minute and signs up for a veteran's support group. And it is this fateful decision that brings her into the fold.
Pearson Family Connection: As Cassidy is sharing, a chair flies through the window, tossed by none other than Uncle Nicky. While Cassidy watches Nicky get arrested with a look of understanding and connection to this fellow broken veteran, we get a phone call on the other side of the country.
Kevin is Nicky's emergency contact, and as he books a flight we can already see he and Cassidy will cross paths, though to what result is anyone's guess. She may help him better connect with Nicky, she may make the poor decision of making her marriage worse by sleeping with Kevin (who still has plenty of his own problems). Time will tell.
When we first meet Malik, played by Asante Blackk, he seems like a typical high school kid, but there's more to Malik than meets the eye. For one, he appears to be a single father, raising his daughter with his adorably cheesy parents (Marsha Stephanie Blake and Omar Epps). For another, he has a love of cooking, which could be explored in the future.
But most importantly, his story was about the burden of responsibility and the temptation of the easy score. Sure, Malik wants to make $10k to put his daughter into the best pre-K, but part of it is also about not wanting to give up his entire childhood too soon.
What was so beautiful about the whole story was the amount of respect the characters had for one another. Epps' Darnell used to run in a bad crowd, but when Malik tries to get work from one of his old running buddies, the guy tries to gently turn him down, out of respect for the choice Darnell made to straighten his life. Then Darnell made sure that Malik understood that it is possible to juggle responsibility and still have a life ... with the help of his "wonderful father."
Pearson Family Connection: Thanks to Darnell offering to babysit that night, Malik made it to the barbecue, where he was able to hang with friends and serve up his world-famous hamburgers. And he was able to give his all into making the best burger possible for the cutest new girl in school he was just introduced to: Deja.
The last story centered around a young man who lived alone with his puppy. An aspiring musician, he broke his breakfast plate to kick off his story and by the close of the hour, that plate was in a frame and hanging on the wall.
And why? Because that was the day he met Lucy, the waitress at one of his favorite diners. He'd never gone there for breakfast before and thus their paths had never crossed, but he quickly won her over and invited her to join him. And we absolutely loved that he used humor in every facet of their burgeoning relationship, an echo to how Jack and Rebecca cut each other down in the most beautifully authentic way in their chapters.
Their story ends with Lucy revealing to the young man that they're six weeks pregnant just as her restaurant is about to open. Meanwhile, it looks like this guy is a bona fide rock star, as we see him head out to sing in front of a massive audience both Rebecca and Kate could only dream about. But we imagine they'd be so proud to see him ... or maybe they are.
Pearson Family Connection: The story isn't connected fully until we learn in the doctor's office that baby Jack will not recover and will remain blind -- save for seeing some light and blurry shapes -- for the rest of his life. By this point, the young man who becomes a rock star had already shared with Lucy that he was blind, save for seeing some light and blurry shapes. Yes, it's another flash-forward and the promise of a bright future for the son of Kate and Toby.
What isn't clear is where this fits into the flash-forward scenes we've already seen, with the ailing Rebecca in future Kevin's house. Does that moment happen after Jack has become this mega-star? He was supposedly on his way to the house with "her" at that point. Is "her" Lucy? His mother Kate? So many questions, but we guess that's the way these writers like it.
"This Is Us" is back to tease us relentlessly every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.