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“It was a challenging year,” says This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman with no small degree of understatement, reflecting on making the series’ fifth season, which led to six Emmy nominations, including the show’s fourth nom for outstanding drama series. Not only did the much-beloved series face the daunting prospect of resuming production several months into the onslaught of COVID-19, but Fogelman was expecting his first child at the time. “I had three castmembers who were having a baby in the midst of [the] pandemic — I had a lead actress who was pregnant, and I was worried about making sure everything went well and safely,” he tells THR.
Fogelman said there also were several “sleepless nights” of wrestling with whether to address the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, with much doubt and hand-wringing over giving such critical issues the thoughtful treatment they deserved. Given that the series had never shied away from addressing the harder truths of life, the ultimate consensus was to lean into the concerns of the day. “Showrunning is about instincts and listening to all your people, and listening to the world around you, and then making decisions,” he explains.
Along the way, This Is Us managed to deliver on its signature ability to simultaneously blindside, shock and delight its audience with unexpected, twisty reveals, causing viewers to buy in even as they’re dumbstruck. “It’s a weird magic trick that my group is very good at pulling off,” says Fogelman. “It doesn’t work unless you’ve got a fan base that’s willing to go on a ride with you, and this show continues to have an audience of people who tune in for that stuff.”
You famously have a long-range vision for the show. How did the initial big picture at the start of this season compare with where you ended up?
On the macro level — which is really where our plan exists, such as what’s going to happen each season and what are our big moments and our big hinges — our plan didn’t change very much, certainly not more than ever [before]. The minutiae probably changed a little bit more, just in that we had broken our season before the pandemic, and when we decided to include the pandemic, it wasn’t a shift in the overall stories for our characters as much as there was a shift in how we were going to execute those stories.
We just tried to kind of continue working our regular life stories into the show. I was navigating having a first child in the middle of the pandemic, just as Kevin [Justin Hartley] was [on the show this season]. And I was going to doctor appointments with my wife, where I was sitting in the car outside, because only one person was allowed in at a time, the pregnant woman. And so that was the way we tried to incorporate the world into our stories, without necessarily making giant shifts to where the characters were going to end up at the end of the season.
The repercussions of the nation’s charged racial dialogue also found their way into the show, and it felt like an organic progression.
Our conversations about race, particularly between Randall [Sterling K. Brown] and his siblings, were areas that we always had attacked and wanted to attack, but we got insight as writers in a very specific way. We were able to have conversations between siblings who grew up in a family where a Black child was raised inside of a white family, but [it] was still a loving family. And we were able to have conversations that are complicated for anybody to have, including this family, but were able to be had on the show because they were a family, because they could say the things that aren’t always being said.
I was really pleased with how our writers, our actors and our whole crew executed those storylines. Whether it was Randall in the premiere, confronting his sister and his family on what was not seen in his childhood, through an episode that we really devoted to Randall trying to make Kevin see what he wasn’t seeing, those were really interesting pieces of storytelling that were unique to our show, unique to the season and unique to this moment in time.
Was there any particular emotional response from the audience this season that made you especially gratified, like you’d delivered something when we were all struggling in our lives?
We did an episode where it was multiple family members having babies at the same time … in the midst of the pandemic where not everybody’s able to go in the hospital and be there. And we established this character who was actually based on a real man who was one of the original engineers who helped start the initial coding and technology that would become the FaceTimes and Zooms of the world. That was the big reveal at the end of the episode, that this young man and [his] young love story we’d been borrowing was actually one of the guys who was at the beginnings of the technology that somehow managed to keep us all somewhat connected during this pandemic.
It was an idea I had at the beginning of the season when I noticed how connected we were all becoming via Zoom and FaceTime during this weird moment in time. And when we pulled it off and people had that response to it — when that man, Nasir [Ahmed, played by Abhi Sinha], was trending on Twitter — that was a really rewarding moment for us as writers. And if I have the guts to look back on this television series decades from now, that’s an episode I’ll look at and say, “I think we might’ve captured something from our moment in time in that moment.”
This deep into a series run, you executed another major surprise bomb with the season ender’s big final-moment reveal of Chrissy Metz’s Kate remarrying.
Yeah, that was the cool one. That ending was what I referred to as one of our many “stakes in the ground” that’s always been planted from a very early stage: We’re going to reveal in a surprising way that Kate is getting remarried. And we always knew it would come around the end of the season … Pretty exactly I had that ending and that scene in my mind’s eye, and I felt we could do it.
I remember the first time I saw the edit and we got the music in there and got the whole thing kind of working. I was like, “Oh my God — people are going to have a real reaction. We really did it!” You don’t see it coming. And [in] a show where [people’s] eyes [are now] trained to watch out for it. I was like, “We’ve done it the right way. We’ve executed it well.”
And those are the challenging moments. In this show, when you know you’ve done something that’s going to be successful and that’s also going to upset people, it’s a wild ride on your end … This was one where we knew we’re going to get a reaction. And it’s exciting to catch people by surprise and to get that chatter going at that level on the fifth season of a network television show.
Any other accomplishments — grace notes or big thematic elements — that came out of the season that you were particularly satisfied with at the end?
Our show’s always been a show about connection, and certainly a season of television was shot at a time where people were feeling very disconnected from one another. And as weird as it was going onto set and seeing a crew covered in face shields and face masks, there was a form of community happening during this time in our very strange job. And I think that seeps through into the season a little bit, and you can feel it with the actors and you can feel it with the love that the crew always bestows upon the show.
And that’s what I see when I look back on the season: I will remember the people sweating their asses off in masks and shields and still finding the laughs and that being a kind of joyous place, even as everybody underneath it all was stressing about eight million things that were unique to this year.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Many speculated that series that successfully leaned into COVID storylines might play well with TV Academy voters. This Is Us, once an Emmy favorite but ignored in 2020, is the only contemporary-set drama in the race this year — and the only one to deal with the pandemic. Is it enough for the NBC show to pull off an upset after its fifth season, a feat that would make it the first broadcast drama to win in the category since 2006? The odds aren’t in its favor. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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