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If the first season of NBC’s This Is Us is about introducing audiences to the decades-spanning story of the Pearson family, the second is about the lingering mystery surrounding patriarch Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) death. Season three, showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger say, is free of any of those constraints.
The duo revealed a few tidbits about the show’s upcoming third season, which began filming in July, including which characters’ backstories will be explored, whether fan-favorite guest stars will return, and what, exactly, the third season will explore.
“It’s really exciting for us. There’s something very freeing about being past the mystery of Jack’s death and moving into this new chapter and getting to tell a whole completely different kind of story,” Berger recently told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. “It’s different than anything we [or] any of our writers have done in our first two years. To all of a sudden be immersed in the Vietnam War, we think it’s going to be really special and really different.”
Besides — despite showing the Pearsons at many different points in their lives, “we’ve really only spent 36 hours with them,” Aptaker said. And the scope of season three’s 18 episodes will only expand the world further. “We’re challenging ourselves to jump to decades we’ve never been in before and go into the future, as we’ve seen a little bit, and really play with the storytelling format in a way that’s just much more complicated than we were able to in earlier seasons when we were showing people how the show worked.”
Here are a few more burning questions the co-showrunners answered about what’s next for Jack, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and the Big Three of Kevin (Justin Hartley), Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kate (Chrissy Metz).
1. What’s the overarching theme?
“We felt like, at the end of season two, our family had grieved and processed the loss of Jack on a deeper level than they ever had before. So I think this is a very hopeful season, and it’s a season about true new beginnings for everybody,” Berger said.
2. Will there be a major time jump?
“We pick up on our Big Three’s birthday,” Aptaker said. The series will keep with tradition and open the season for the third time on the Big Three’s birthday, this time their 38th. “We teased a lot of where we’re going at the end of our season last year, when we saw Kevin going on an airplane with Beth’s cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd) to Vietnam. We saw Toby (Chris Sullivan) in the throes of a depressive episode. Our storylines are going to catch up to all of those moments over the course of this year.”
For Kate and Toby, specifically, while there will be a few lighthearted stories, Berger said the duo will deal with both Toby’s depression and their quest to start a family. “Within the first half of our season we’re going to be seeing Kate and Toby go through various challenges,” she said. “Obviously last season their journey to have a family, that’s a journey that we’re going to be continuing this season, and there’s going to be the stresses of your first year of marriage. It’s something that we’re going to be building toward.”
3. What about the mega-flash-forward, with an older Randall speaking to his now-grown daughter Tess (Iantha Richardson)?
“That future storyline is part of our bigger-picture plan for the series, but there will be answers in the future this season as well,” teased Aptaker. In the immediate future, Randall and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) will be dealing with the fact that their foster daughter, Deja (Lyric Ross), took a baseball bat to their car.
4. How deeply will Jack’s time in Vietnam be explored?
“We are going to be spending a lot of time in Vietnam,” Aptaker said. “We hired Tim O’Brien, who is one of the premier novelists and a veteran himself, to come consult in our writers room because most of us were not actually alive during Vietnam. We wanted that authority there to really get the story right. He’s been wonderful. He came in and spent a week with us and just shared so much of his experience. … We took so much from Tim and his life. He’s actually co-writing, with Dan Fogelman, an early episode that really dives into Jack’s history there.”
That includes meeting Jack’s brother, Nicky, but Aptaker and Berger remained mum on who they’d cast to play the key character.
5. Who else’s backstory will be explored?
Miguel (Jon Huertas) and Rebecca’s relationship “is going to be something we tackle a bit this year and also bigger picture on the series,” said Aptaker, and the series will devote time to Toby and Beth’s early years as well. Said Berger, “It’s the pitfall to having such a brilliant cast, where you’re always like, ‘Give them more, give them more,’ so we’re really excited to delve a little deeper into both of those characters.”
6. Which guest stars are returning?
Don’t expect to see Sylvester Stallone again — or someone else megafamous (unless the story makes sense). “We always talk about names. And there are famous people who are big fans of the show that we’re big fans of,” said Aptaker. “It’s always about trying to find that balancing act of is it organic to the story or is it going to be wildly distracting to, all of a sudden, have Usher walk into our storyline?”
Though Ron Cephas Jones (who plays Randall’s now-deceased birth father) is a regular on an Apple series, he’ll be back, and so will Gerald McRaney as Dr. K if the schedule and storyline allow. “We love them so much, so [we will have them back] whenever we can,” said Aptaker.
This Is Us returns Sept. 25 on NBC.
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