Behind every great male TV performance, there is often an equally terrific – and too often unsung — female performance. That is certainly true on NBC’s “This Is Us.” As wonderful as Sterling K. Brown is as Randall Pearson – he more than deserved that Emmy in the show’s stellar first season – he wouldn’t be quite as effective if anyone other than actress Susan Kelechi Watson were playing Beth, his smart, strong and supportive wife and mother of three girls. She regularly stands by him as he pursues his dreams and ambitions but also acts as an invaluable sounding board.
But as we learn from the episode titled “Our Little Island Girl,” a pre-adolescent Bethany, as she was called, yearned to pursue a career as a principal ballerina for a prestigious dance company with the hopes of being the first black performer — a la Misty Copeland — to do so. When you see that her formidable educator mother Carol is played by Phylicia Rashad, you know the show’s producers aren’t messing around. She has issues with her young daughter’s choice once Beth gets accepted into an academy – not the least being the costly tuition and countless hours of practice. But she relents after Beth’s loving Jamaican-American father, Abe (Carl Lumbly), keeps reminding his wife about how their baby “danced before she could walk.”
But no matter how hard she works, a teen-age Beth lacks the star power and innate gifts that a rival African-American student has in abundance. After she does not get the solo spot in “Swan Lake,” Carol tells her daughter to put her dream behind her and start filling out college applications. It is then revealed that her father is suffering from lung cancer and soon will die We then see Beth bump into a young and gawky Randall at a Carnegie Mellon University freshman mixer
The flashbacks are surrounded by present-day events as Beth and her cousin Zoe go on a road trip to D.C. after high-school principal Carol injures her already ailing hip. Beth thinks her mom should retire but she is clearly still intimidated by her, as she finally blurts out that she was laid off from her job. But like mother, like daughter. Carol goes back to work with the aid of a walker and Beth visits a local dance studio, which allows Kelechi Watson to perform a fabulous solo routine. She then announces that she wants to apply to be a teacher.
The showrunners did well by the actress by hiring choreographer and director Anne Fletcher — who helmed 2006’s “Step Up” and 2009’s “The Proposal”– to oversee this episode. That might be one reason that 16 out of 22 Gold Derby Experts have put Kelechi Watson in fifth place among the possible supporting actresses in a drama. Considering that the ladies from “Game of Thrones” are among those standing in her way, that isn’t too shabby.
But even if she doesn’t earn an Emmy slot this year, Kelechi Watson will have won just by co-starring opposite Tom Hanks in the Mr. Rogers biopic “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and opening on Nov. 22.
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