[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of NBC’s This Is Us.]
To say that NBC’s This Is Us was among the fall’s most highly anticipated premieres would be an understatement. Since the trailer for the Dan Fogelman-created drama dropped in May, the YouTube clip has raked up millions of views — scoring 15 million in just 48 hours. And the drama delivered a heartfelt hour (perhaps unrivaled since the conclusion of Jason Katims entry Parenthood) with its premiere Tuesday.
The series, one of two new fall entries from Fogelman (who is also responsible for Fox’s Pitch), revolves around a group of people who go through various life events on their 36th birthdays. Kate (Chrissy Metz) decides it’s time for her to stop making excuses and is finally ready to get in shape. Her twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) goes through an existential career crisis and has a meltdown in front of a live studio audience. Randall (newly minted People v. O.J. Simpson Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown) seeks out his biological father who abandoned him the day he was born when he left him at a fire station. Then there’s Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who are preparing for the birth of their triplets.
But what that trailer didn’t show was the huge episode-ending twist that packs the pilot’s biggest emotional punch: a clever time jump that reveals that Jack is the head of this family — he’s Kate and Kevin’s biological father and the man who adopted Randall that same day he and Rebecca’s third baby died.
Now that the game-changing reveal is out of the bag, THR sat down with Fogelman to discuss crafting those emotional punches and what they mean going forward, playing with time jumps, making audiences experience “the good cry” and avoiding Hollywood clichés.
Congratulations on the pilot. Where does the show go after such a big reveal?
The structure of the show is very similar in the coming weeks in that it’s interconnected stories. We have four main stories as our main storylines. We’ll be cutting back and forth between those the same way that we do in the pilot. They start commenting on each other because of the way the series progresses and all the stuff that happens in the pilot. So Mandy and Milo’s story is the story of a young couple raising a family, but that storyline will jump around in time. It won’t just be the couple taking the babies home from the hospital, it’s going to be the story of marriage and family. The pilot may have ended with them having the babies, but the second episode starts in 1988 and you see them eight years after having those kids. Then the third episode will go right back to the day they brought the babies home from the hospital.
Have there been limitations in how big of a time jump you can take given the actors’ ages?
In terms of aging Milo and Mandy, it’s really subtle stuff when you really analyze it. It’s not like from 36 to 42 years old we become unrecognizably different people. Our hairstyles change, we age a little bit. We might use a little less or more makeup. It’s not that hard to do, it’s just that you have to be precise and thoughtful and do it the right way. Milo’s facial hair is a huge benefit to us. He’s so malleable with his look because we’re really able to place ourselves in different periods just based on the beard and mustache.
Is it true you asked Milo to stop working out for the role but he held fast?
Yes! He doesn’t stop working out. We told him that his character is a dad, and so you don’t see a lot of dads who look like him. He says sometimes he lets himself go, but we all dream of looking like Milo (laughing).
What’s the strategy for keeping those emotional punches rolling in the coming weeks?
It’s all life. I find the most interesting moments in life are the really small moments that can be much bigger in retrospect. The moment you met your wife or husband. The moment you decide to change career paths. These things aren’t always in front of national audiences, but sometimes the little things that define us as people have the most impact. In the pilot, we had Sterling’s character reuniting with his biological father and there are a lot of questions and animosity that come out of it. That’s a lot of raw emotion to be mined. You don’t need the birth of a baby or a twist in the pilot to get that emotion.
Is the goal to get audiences crying each week?
When we started shooting our second episode, Milo has this speech that really made me cry behind the monitors. I don’t think that’s happened to me in a really long time. But it was a good cry; it was beautiful and real. That’s the goal at least: the good cry. I like those old movies from the 1970s … we don’t make a lot of them anymore but Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment. Those comedies were funny and captured something in life but they gave you a good kind of emotional release. My wife and I always get the screeners at the end of the year and it’s gotten harder and harder to watch the slug of films that are Oscar-nominated, they’re really dark. Our show has characters that are flawed and who do stupid things but they mean well and they’re trying to be better at the end of the day. That’s maybe an experience we can all relate to. That’s the human experience. We step in it over and over again but we keep trying to do better the next day and that’s where the emotion will come from.
Are monologes your go-to for drawing that emotion?
We think of it as a stage play, it’s really just about the moments in the dialog and the writer’s performances. It’s lighting it beautifully, working really hard on some carefully constructed scripts and then letting the actors go. There’s not a lot happening, no action sequences or car chases. We let the actors breathe a little bit. The scene in the pilot with Gerald McRaney and Milo in the hospital (seen above) — you don’t get a lot of shows with scenes of just two people sitting in chairs taking for that long without anything really happening. There’s a lot of silence and a lot of space. That’s one of the things that draws me, is watching great actors do that.
Was there a cathartic release in writing Justin Hartley’s character meltdown?
Not for me necessarily. I’ve had a different experience on the comedy front. I’ve only done two shows [ABC’s Galavant, Neighbors] but I was trying to do different stuff so I never had that claustrophobic work experience. My frustrations sometimes were with how they were aired or scheduled. With Justin, hopefully it’s more of how we all want to have that moment with our bosses at our job. Talking with all my friends when we sit and talk about our jobs over a beer, everyone is always frustrated with their boss and they feel underutilized and undervalued. So what Justin’s getting to do in that scene is kind of tell off the man in a public forum. Giving voice to that experience more than just the television experience. But it is hard. We’re in a business that the nature of the business is it’s run by ratings and testing dials and it can be very frustrating and stifling so there’s a little of that too.
The way Kate and Toby (Chris Sullivan) meet is very similar to how the leads on Mike and Molly met in their pilot — did you draw any inspiration from that show?
I’ve never seen Mike and Molly. My family on one side is very overweight so I’ve always wanted to do something touching on that battle. An overweight support group felt like a place where we go with some people to explore some stuff. But I didn’t know that.
What kind of conversations have you and Chrissy Metz had about integrating her own weight loss (or non-weight loss) with the character?
We’ve had lots of talks and there’s a big plan of how and when that will all happen. She’s probably going to try and lose weight at some point. It would be very TV of us to say, have her lose all of the weight in eight weeks. So we wanted to treat it really realistically and it’s an up and down battle. She’s going to have low points and maybe explore or try other options. She’ll have a big fall and then maybe a big rebirth. That’s one of many journeys in the show for her. But it’s also about the coming of age story for her. Chrissy as a human being is the most vivacious, outgoing, funny, talented person, but this character has gone a little inward and is living a little bit in her brother’s shadow. So it’s not just about the weight, it’s about coming out into the world. That doesn’t happen overnight.
Was there any specific inspiration surrounding Sterling’s adoption storyline?
I have a lot of friends who are adopting now, so a lot of that came from friends. Adopting now is different than from years ago. I wonder what adoption was like in 1979. Now we’re well-educated and we have therapy tools. People who are adopted tend to have a lot of support; there’s essentially a book on it and what you’re supposed to do and schools of thoughts on how you address it. Those tools didn’t always exist 36 years ago so I thought that was an interesting storyline to explore.
Would you classify all your leads as being in a coming-of-age story?
There’s hopefulness to the characters; they’re all at low points and they’ve all somewhat fallen, but now they’ll kind of grow up a little bit and come of age at 36 years old. That’s not an easy journey, it’s falling on your face over and over again, and just when you get here you screw it all up and restart again. That’s the slog for the characters. Hopefully it’s uplifting though because I’m not interested in characters screwing up, making mistakes, getting the crap kicked out of them and then you end your hour of television feeling worse than you did when you came into it. We want to show the human battle. We take little steps to be better, be better, be better, and then we f— up and it all goes back to zero again. That’s what raising kids is I think. You try your best, you try your best and then something’s going to happen and you’re going to have to wake up the next morning and start all over again. It’s the human condition, our work, our jobs. And that’s the show.
This is Us airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC. What did you think of the pilot? Sound off in the comments below. Click here to read our postmortem with Ventimiglia about the premeire and his new loook.