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This Is Us: Behind the scenes of NBC series

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Ron Batzdorf/NBC

It’s morning rush hour in the Pearson household. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) hustles around the kitchen, managing breakfast for her boisterous children. Husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) zooms into the room, searches for some coffee, and pumps up the little ones with a sweet call-and-response family cheer: “First came…ME! And Dad said…GEE! Then came…ME! And Mom said…WEEE!”

We can’t share the rest of that chant. Or divulge what one kid is teasing another about. Or explain why there’s a whiff of marital tension. Or even describe the overbearing-parent dynamic. But we can tell you that this quotidian breakfast scene will vibrate with significance when you see it. “There’s a lot going on here,” stresses Moore. “It’s a show that definitely will break your heart,” sums up Ventimiglia, “but also kind of reach through and give it a hug at the same time.”

This is This Is Us, the NBC dramedy that’s one of, if not the most anticipated new series of the fall, according to critics and tens of millions of views of the show’s trailer, which teems with touchy-feels, optimism, and ache, plus a glimpse of Ventimiglia’s bare butt. The ambitious series follows a disparate group of 36-year-olds who share the same birthday. There are no government conspiracies to untangle, no scandals to be spun, no murders to get away with — these are just people on the precipice of big change, seeking better versions of themselves.

These people would be: Jack and Rebecca, who are dealt a bittersweet hand during the birth of their triplets; Kevin (Justin Hartley), the star of a hacky hit sitcom titled The Manny who risks it all by quitting his job in a Jerry Maguire-esque meltdown that goes viral; his twin sister/personal assistant, Kate (Chrissy Metz), who is pledging to change her life and shed weight while trying out a romance; and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a perfectionist businessman/family man who suddenly finds himself tracking down his biological father, who abandoned him as a baby. How exactly these people are connected is something that won’t reveal itself right away, but when it does, it’s as much feel-good realization as it is game-changing jolt.

“That initial kernel was me looking to my right, center, and left at emails and Facebook updates from friends, and I was like ‘Holy s—, we’re all the same age and our lives could not be more different!'” says series creator (and Crazy, Stupid, Love screenwriter) Dan Fogelman of the show, which reunites him with Crazy directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. “Some people have four kids, and other people are unmarried with no kids. People are at the top of their professions, some people are saying, ‘I want to make a change before it’s too late,’ people are getting divorced, people are getting married, people are losing parents, finding parents. So I thought, ‘That’s a really interesting idea to follow these people who are all the same age.’ Then I thought, ‘What if even more directly, metaphorically, they were literally exactly the same age?”

He also thought to lace the show with flashbacks of formative moments from these characters’ lives as they navigate current crises, so “it’s almost like you’re the therapist for this group of people,” he explains. “You can slowly start to make the connections sitting on your couch, and you’re like, ‘Oh!’—in the way I can look at pinnacle moments in my life and childhood and go, ‘Oh, that’s why I’m doing that right now.'”

They’re hoping the audience responds with tears and laughs; the dramedy will court both while wearing its life-is-messy-but-it’ll-be-okay heart on its irony-free sleeve. (Parenthood fans in mourning are likely to find safe refuge here.) In discussing tonal influences, Fogelman — who also wrote Tangled and Cars, and created such offbeat TV series as Galavant — name-checks everything from Love Actually to Terms of Endearment to special episodes of Family Ties. “Some episodes are going to end with these big surprises,” he says. “Some are going to end with a huge sense of completion and emotional fulfillment.”

Ventimiglia — the Heroes alum whose recent roles have skewed dark (The Whispers) — responded to the show’s you’re-not-alone message. “This one felt hopeful,” he says. Meanwhile, Moore, who knew Fogelman from her Tangled role, was gun-shy from a run of busted pilots. “I was like, ‘I just don’t know if I have it in my bones anymore to go through this kind of rejection and heartbreak,'” she shares. “But then I read this and I was like, ‘Regardless of whether this moves forward, it’s so special…'” What also intrigued the cast was Fogelman’s desire to take the road less traveled with each character. The story of Randall, who is African-American, will address race, but he also becomes enmeshed in a poignant story when he learns that the dad (Ron Cephas Jones) he has just reconnected with is dying. “How close will you allow yourself to get to someone who’s been absent forever, and now may very well be absent again?” asks Brown.

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As for Kate, she is battling her weight, but her tale is also one of codependence with her famous brother, as well as a love story with her Hollywood-obsessed boyfriend (Chris Sullivan). “Typically when I’m auditioning for things, the plus-size girl is kind of the butt of the joke,” says Metz. “But [here we are] actually getting to her impetus to either want to change or why she is the way that she is…. We all have something that we’re not proud of. And whether it’s ‘I lied to someone,’ ‘I’ve gained weight,’ ‘I messed up my relationship,’ ‘I never had a relationship with my son or daughter,’ all of us can understand that. So that really touches on every level.”

Including a level that, as we mentioned, you might not see coming. “My jaw was on the ground,” recalls Brown of his reaction when he finished reading the pilot. “There’s this sort of mystical, meant-to-be-ness of it all.” Fogelman even ended that first script with a note of explanation of how the show will proceed after the revelation and signed off with ‘Love, M. Night Fogelman.’

RELATED: Hear what TV shows to watch and avoid this fall

 

If you’re getting a sixth sense that this isn’t your ordinary thirtysomething-characters-at-various-crossroads show, you aren’t alone. “I’ve never heard anybody talk like that about a trailer in my life,” says Hartley, “except maybe, like, ‘This new Star Wars trailer looks pretty cool!'” And the show’s high-visibility time slot after The Voice only ramps up the stakes. “All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Are they expecting it to launch to Super Bowl numbers?'” quips Fogelman, co-creator of another buzzy fall series, Fox’s Pitch.

For now the This Is Us team is just trying to focus on leaving the right kind of mark. Moore has a colorful metaphor to describe the vibe of the show. “It makes your heart feel just a little bit bruised, but a good bruise,” she says. “Where every now and then you push on it to make sure that it still hurts.” Save some tissues for Us this fall.

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