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Dan Fogelman and his This Is Us writers have taken several detours from the Big Three Pearson siblings in season three in a bid to experiment with the format of NBC’s time-hopping drama. An episode in the first half of the season explored patriarch Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) time in Vietnam (and even took three castmembers to the country to film), while the Feb. 19 episode examined the childhood of Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). This week’s episode, “The Waiting Room,” is the latest departure from the show’s typical format.
Written by playwright Bekah Brunstetter, the hour follows the Pearson family as they await news about Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) pregnancy. At the end of last week’s episode, Kate’s water broke while she confronted twin Kevin (Justin Hartley), a recovering alcoholic, about his drinking relapse. The entire family has gathered in the waiting area at the hospital, and the entire episode takes place in that one room.
“Because we had the right setup based off where our episodes are going, we challenged ourselves with, ‘Let’s put a play on national television,'” Fogelman told The Hollywood Reporter. “And to me, not just because it was ambitious, but because of how it turned out, it’s a very exciting showcase for our writing staff and for our cast. No bells and whistles. It’s just a lot of great actors saying some really cool words and shot in a beautiful way and I’m really excited.”
And with four remaining episodes of the current third season, Fogelman and company will continue to toy with the show’s structure, including an hour delving into the history of Randall and Beth’s relationship.
“We’ll see their first date, we’ll see some big moments in their marriage,” co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker told THR. “We’re just trying to play with the format and the structure of the show and find new ways to tell a story.”
It’s something Fogelman, Aptaker and co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger plan to do in the fourth season as well. (The series is considered a slam-dunk to return, though a formal renewal has not yet been announced.) They’re game to try anything, including something plenty of TV shows have done before: a live episode.
“I would put our cast on live television very comfortably because of how good they all are and because there’s not a weak link you ever have to protect, which is usually the reason you don’t do it,” said Fogelman. “[‘The Waiting Room’], it’s not a live episode. But it very much feels like that. It’s long, long, long takes and it’s basically in one room, so I would do that.”
A typical This Is Us episode features a past story, then present-day storylines for each of the Big Three that are a reflection of that past story, Fogelman explained.
“But we’re breaking that mold more and more and finding that our audience will go with it, whether it’s a story of exploring the three kids going to find their uncle butted up against Milo going to find his brother in the same location; … or Beth’s episode; or [the upcoming Randall and Beth episode]. We have episodes coming in prominent locations of our next two seasons that will barely involve any of our main characters. And so for us, it’s not about trying to be different or trying to be interesting. Network TV and television in general, when you’ve been on as long as we have, it can get a little expected. And what we like doing is making sure that people are still paying attention.”
The writers room is already working on season four and “mapping out” the major beats of the season, said Berger, and “getting a head start on what’s to come.”
“This season wraps up a lot in a really satisfying way and then asks a whole lot of new questions, so season four has a lot of new beginnings,” Aptaker said.
A cryptic tease, sure, but not as cryptic as what Fogelman said about the timeline of the (likely) upcoming seasons.
“There is a moment in the show where, in a weird way, the present becomes the past and the future becomes the present,” said Fogelman. “That sounds really high-level. It doesn’t always have to be, like, in the deep, deep future, but we can play with time in a really interesting way that really tells the full story of a family. It’s always been our plan from the beginning. I think people aren’t going to quite realize what we’re going to try and do in the next couple of seasons of the show.”
One promise, though: There will be more information regarding the mysterious flash-forwards to Randall and Beth’s future.
“Stuff will be coming this season,” Fogelman teased, “but not overnight.”
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC, and wraps its third season on April 2.
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