Every so often on “This Is Us,” before a significant twist or reveal is set for prime-time unveiling, about a dozen friends and family members of the show’s inner circle gather inside a small screening room at Paramount Studios for feedback about the big episode. To gain admission, attendees must be caught up with the NBC family drama — and they must be willing to sign nondisclosure agreements.
“We don’t give them any preface,” says series creator Dan Fogelman. “We play the episode. And once it’s over, we say: ‘What did you guys think?’ And it’s surprising the things you find out. You learn some stuff that really messes up your weekend.”
Take the reaction to the series’ much-anticipated post-Super Bowl episode in 2018. The episode revealed that a house fire led to, but did not immediately cause, the death of the Pearson family’s beloved patriarch, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia). But production oversights distracted from the intensity of the pivotal sequence.
“I screened it ad nauseam,” Fogelman says. “And what I learned from the early screenings was people were very distracted by the lack of background fire engines while the family was standing out in the front yard. I’m there asking, ‘But are you captivated? Are you relieved when Jack gets out?’ But over and over again, people would say: ‘Why is nobody calling 911? Why are there no fire trucks coming?’ And so it’s like, we can’t allow that to be a distraction because suddenly you’re airing the biggest episode of your career and all of Twitter is going, ‘Why is no one calling 911?’ No thanks.”
This is what goes into making the twists and turns of “This Is Us.”
The series, which returns Tuesday for the second half of its fourth season, is not a buzzy prestige drama about an ultra-wealthy, media conglomerate-owning family. Still, its big-hearted look at the Pearsons — parents Jack (Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and their three kids, Kevin, Kate and Randall — has managed to keep viewers asking questions four seasons in with suspenseful, mystery-fueled storytelling atypical of a family drama.
How does Jack die? Who is ‘her’? Are Randall and Beth still together? Who is the mother of Kevin’s child? What’s the deal with teenage Kate’s boyfriend?
The fall finale, which aired Nov. 19, has prompted a few more questions. The episode, titled “So Long, Marianne,” explored Rebecca’s memory issues, which she asks Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — who’d had her seek medical attention, to her chagrin — to keep under wraps from his siblings. In a time-confusing nine-month flash-forward, viewers see Rebecca struggle with her diminishing mental state. Police help return her to the Pearson cabin, where Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Kate (Chrissy Metz) are readying to celebrate their 40th birthday. In the process, viewers discover that Randall and Kevin are estranged, Kevin is engaged to someone with morning sickness, and Kate’s husband, Toby (Chris Sullivan), is nowhere in sight.
A few days after the episode’s broadcast, Fogelman is sitting in his office on the Paramount lot alongside Isaac Aptaker, who serves as co-showrunner with Elizabeth Berger. They look as enthusiastic as you’d expect, having pulled off a new cliffhanger: “It’s fun when your phone is blowing up because of something that’s happened on national television,” Fogelman says.
“It was always what we knew we wanted to explore with Rebecca,” Fogelman says. “The show is so much about memory and time that it felt like the right place for us to be going. Part of a story about a family is taking you through the progression of children becoming adults and parents becoming these iconic figures who are eventually not there any more.”
Key to carrying out the twists and turns, Fogelman says, is knowing what the show is building toward. When he pitched the series, he had a “bible” to accompany it, which included some of the major progressions that would take place over the show’s arc. It helps, of course, to have a network have enough confidence to order up multiple seasons ahead of time: “This Is Us” is renewed through its sixth season.
“We’ve always known the plan for the show because we’re not going 15 seasons,” Fogelman says. “If you know where you’re going, you’re just playing with time. It feels like a page-turner because we’re telling the story about a family over the course of 80 years by the time we’re done. And so all of our families could seem really interesting in that way. No, we don’t all have a fire in our house, but we’ve all lost parents, experienced the birth of children, had divorces, wound up with people we didn’t expect. And if you told that whole story broken into different chapters and mixed up all the pieces, it would have made your family’s stories seem like a mystery. That’s all we’ve done here. It’s not like we’re telling a murder mystery.”
Deciding when to unveil a twist or surprise tends to be dictated by the structure of a broadcast television season.
“Whenever someone is not in a scene, viewers are always wondering if the character is dead.”
“We continue to make a television show for people who, relatively, watch it in real time — not just live viewership, but people who watch it within a week or so of its airing. So our big things tend to be, ‘OK, we’ve been off the air for two months, let’s try something big when we get back.’ Or, ‘We’re going to be off the air for however long, let’s end in a big way.’ Not necessarily because we’re aiming for them, but because it gives us the beginning, middle and end markers.”
Originally, the writers talked at length about saving the fall finale’s closing time jump for the beginning of next season: “We just felt like it was time to start activating that story, not just because of what it does for Rebecca’s story, but what it does for the siblings,” Fogelman says.
A peek inside the writers room, a floor above Fogelman’s office, reveals an assortment of color-coded notecards — some denoting characters, others denoting time periods. There’s also a makeshift timeline wrapped around the walls, with bits of information under the date, such as Thanksgiving 1989: “The Pearson Thanksgiving traditions are created!”
“We have to remind ourselves: ‘OK, we’re doing a cross with William [Randall’s biological father] — in that time period, where is he? What city is he living in? Which actor will be playing him?” Aptaker says.
“I think people can underestimate how much goes into it because it doesn’t seem like we’re doing something that’s fantasy fiction, with different worlds, or like ‘Game of Thrones’ ... but we’re really mapping things out,” Fogelman says. “Every time you jump in time and make any kind of choice, it locks you in. Your window keeps shrinking of what you can do because you’ve locked yourself in before and after it. So when we make those choices, we have to be really confident, because we’ll be pigeonholed.”
There’s also no predicting what details viewers will obsess over: “People are wondering what it means that Kate signed her name Kate Pearson in the closing moments,” Aptaker says of the fall finale. “We also thought it was much more clear that there was a rift between Kevin and Randall, but people extrapolated that perhaps there’s something bigger going on with Randall and the entire family, which I thought is a totally fair assumption to make. And look, whenever someone is not in a scene, viewers are always wondering if the character is dead.”
“People constantly think Annie [Faithe C. Herman] is dead,” Fogelman says. “Like, guys, we’re not killing Annie.”
For the actors, playing these characters for 18 episodes a season, the element of surprise is what keeps it exciting. While they have a general idea of what the show is building toward, the details of how they get there can be a riddle until they get the scripts. The big episodes often have red pages that can’t be photocopied and redacted scenes that are revealed only once on set.
“There’s a lot of redacted scenes,” says Brown, whose assistant has been invited to one of the top-secret screenings. “It happens probably three or four times a season. It’s like, ‘Oh, man, show me this.’ The scene with Kevin, Kate and Rebecca in the cabin in the fall finale was redacted. The writers do a really good job at keeping us in a state of eager anticipation. There is something coming up that I wish I could talk about.”
Ventimiglia, who had long been plagued by questions about Jack’s death, says the joy is when the secrets are out of the bag for viewers.
“For me, it’s a relief now, because it’s like, ‘Oh, great, I don’t have to answer the big question anymore,’” he says. “No one is looking to me. It’s now about Rebecca, or Kevin, or Randall, or Kate. I don’t take joy in holding back the secrets of the show. But it’s fun to see the audience discover things without any idea or notion of where the story is possibly going.”
Moore, for instance, is interested to learn what has still been untold about the relationship between Rebecca and Miguel (Jon Huertas).
“I know the overarching idea,” she says, “but how we’re going to get there and whether we win over the audience is really thrilling to me.”
Although the show’s twists still inspire conspiracy theories and connect-the-dot analyses, Fogelman argues that the show has become less reliant on such big reveals. And while he won’t confirm the sixth season will be the series’ last, Fogelman’s description of the series’ end game suggests as much.
“The first two seasons we had this giant mystery about Jack hanging over, and so by its very nature, the show’s gotten quieter,” Fogelman says. “I think by the time we’re in our sixth season, you’ll have a lot of the information about what’s happened to this family and what will be left is some resolution. I think when the show eventually comes to an end, I think in the best way, it’ll be very quiet and normal. That’s always been the plan, because at the end of the day, it’s a story about this kind of regular family.”
‘This Is Us’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)