SPOILER ALERT: This story contains key plot points from Tuesday’s series premiere of This Is Us.
If you tuned into the series premiere of This Is Us on Tuesday night, you just witnessed a reveal to remember — and a twist to talk about. Before you watched the episode, perhaps you knew that the promising NBC dramedy would focus on a group of disparate thirtysomethings who share the same birthday. But what you didn’t know until the very end of the episode was that they have a lot more than that in common: They’re all in the same family.
Yes, Kevin (Justin Hartley) the actor who just quit his hit sitcom in a what-am-I-doing-with-my-career? freak-out, Kate (Chrissy Metz), the twin sister personal assistant who is pledging to lose weight and gain direction in her life, and Randall, (Sterling K. Brown), the businessman who finds himself tracking down his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), are actually the children of wildly-in-love couple Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore). The couple were expecting triplets, but after the tragic loss of one during childbirth, they decide to adopt the baby that was brought to the hospital after being left at a fire station. That aha! moment, whenever it happened for you (Want a cigarette? How about some lemonade?), revealed the true nature of the series: This is a story of this family take place in different eras, with the parents’ saga unfolding in 1979, and their offspring’s tales unspooling in present day.
Before you rewatch the premiere or discuss it with loved ones, or head out to the store to stock up on more tissues, read this interview with series creator Dan Fogelman, who breaks down the big moment and previews what awaits the Pearson family.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That was a pretty brilliant device to introduce us to the family, just in the way that twist washes over you. How did you go about designing it? Was it was always going to be at the end of the first episode?
DAN FOGELMAN: It was always designed to be exactly where it is. It was written as such. Looking back on the pilot, obviously the locations are very well-disguised. John and Glenn [Requa and Ficcara, who directed the episode and serve as executive producers] did a brilliant, brilliant job of making everything correct. Even the lighting palette of the rest of the show makes it so that segment doesn’t stand out but still looks very much of the time. The biggest thing was, in the original script, the firefighter didn’t light the cigarette, and that seems to be [the moment of realization] … If you have no idea coming into the pilot that there’s a twist in it, it’s pretty much 100 percent that you will be surprised by it. I found very few people who hadn’t. And it comes to everybody at different places in the last minute and a half.
There’s the lemonade conversation….
“Do you remember what Dad used to say when something crappy would happen to us?” And you cut to [Jack] right then. A few people are right on it right then. Very few. And then there’s a little more when he starts looking at two babies and people start going, “Hmmm….” Some people start attaching right then. They’re still not even necessarily going, “Oh, this is in the past.” But their synapses are firing. And then when the guy lights the cigarette, a lot of people — especially younger people who are not even familiar that that was a possibility — go, “What? What?” And some people go, “Oh!” And then the song starts playing and we start popping around.
But if you watch it in a room of 50 people, you hear murmuring. You get people who are talking to the person next to them. If somebody’s not getting it yet, sometimes it takes all the way through that song for people’s brains to be putting together exactly what they’ve just seen. People who have gotten it early are crying a lot the entire time. My father was out here [in L.A.] recently with my stepmother and my sister, and I showed them it. It ends and my stepmother and my sister are going, “Oh, my God. Dan, I loved it. It completely caught me off-guard!” And it’s been off for 20 seconds and my dad goes, “They’re all related!” I’d never seen that reaction. And we all just turned to my father and everybody busted up laughing because we didn’t know what he’d been thinking for the last 20 seconds. It was like his brain was still kind of catching up to all this. [Laughs.] It comes to everybody a little bit different.
We tested the pilot, which I’m not a believer in. I’ve had positive experiences and bad. My belief is that almost every show that’s been on television has tested pretty positively, and there’s been a great deal of not successful shows. So I believe there’s something broken with the system, and I don’t believe it’s fair if you think that, to point out when it goes in your favor. What was bizarre when I went to the testing for this one was when the line graph started [jumping] at the end. The [participants] turn the dials up [to indicate a positive reaction]. The beginning of the show is at the left and the end’s at the right. By the end, it was hitting such a steep climb that I remember thinking, “Oh, this must be good. It looks like it’s high,” and I remember noticing all of a sudden that the people that worked at NBC and Fox studio were taking pictures of the screen with their phones because it was going so off of the metrics they use to measure it. It was neat. Again, I take it with a grain of salt because I am the first one to say, “It’s meaningless and it’s pointless!’ So it’s not really fair.
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You get your first hint at the beginning of the episode with the ’75-79 photos. It’s laid out right in front of you. What are some of the smaller ones that people might have missed?
A question people have is, “It was their birthday! If it was the three of them, why did they never call Randall?” And my thing would be, “They might have, it just didn’t happen on camera.” But then if you look at Randall’s computer in the opening montage, there’s an email from Kevin. If you freeze frame on the computer screen. It says, “Hey, Bro, happy birthday.” It’s when he’s tracking down his father. There are some photos scattered throughout, that if you were looking in the deep background close enough… And honestly, more than anything, the medical equipment in the hospital is really old but you don’t notice it. Hospital rooms where you have a baby haven’t changed that dramatically in the past 30 years. So part of the reason by making [Dr. K, played by guest star Gerald McRaney] an old folksy doctor is when he looks at his watch to time contractions, he feels like a doctor who’s old-school as opposed to a doctor who’s from an older time. And Gerald brought that so naturally.
Hala Bahmet, our costume designer, did a brilliant job: Milo and the jean jackets. Where we got lucky, John and Glenn were always quick to point out is that look of 1979 is so in vogue at the moment that rather than looking like he’s living in a different time period, it looks like Jack is kind of a hipster living in Silver Lake.
John said, “Hipsters saved us.” And they mentioned that doctors and nurses will be the first ones to figure out the twists because of the equipment.
The equipment, and also the different roles. We had medical consultants taking us through every single step of what would be happening and what not during the delivery and stuff. But the jeans and jean jacket is the star of the period that permeated the entire time. I mean, in our biggest scene of the whole show, Milo is sitting there in full denim with long hair and a beard, and people are crossing in the background, and you don’t notice it.
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You even think that the Terrible Towel is a vintage thing he bought on eBay or a throwback item.… So, you said that almost 100 percent of people were surprised. Were there versions in which you had the reveal a little more obvious but then pulled back? Were there versions in which it was even more difficult to figure out?
Our first edit, which I took time constructing with the guys, was pretty much [the same]. The first time we played it for people, people freaked out. It was a testament. The script did a good job of placing the scenes, and then it was up to John and Glenn to figure out exactly how they were going to do it, and they were meticulous. The script was kind of like, “Here’s the basic road map. You’re going to be just in a room.” But the design of all of it — it was our production designer, Dan Bishop, who’s brilliant and did the whole run of Mad Men and did my last movie, and Hala with costume, and then John and Glenn leading — it was meticulously done. So that it worked the first time we did it.
But when you were going into the process, you must have been worried that it was going to be too obvious or that it wasn’t going to be obvious enough to feel justified.
I was confident we got it right the first time. And we tested. I believed in testing, not the dial testing, but I bring people in, friends and regular people to meet them, make them watch it, and then talk to me after. And let’s say that after the fact 100 people saw it and three people were like, ”Oh, I thought something was up because of that box at the beginning that said 1975-1979,” then I would have taken that shot out. And that didn’t happen so we never changed it. And then the neurotic part of you hits a point where you’re scared to touch anything because it’s working so good. Something might be driving you crazy and you’re like, “You know what? I’m playing with fire. It’s working almost 100 percent of the time. I don’t want to tweak it and suddenly somebody notices something.”
So it’s a lot about showing it to people, and you say to people, “Who got the thing?” I would sometimes say in my edit bay with 10 people in the room, “I’m going to play back the ending for you right now with 10 people in my room, and raise your hand when you’ve got it, but don’t speak. Just raise your hand at that moment. Five minutes ago you watched this, and now I’m going to play it again. I want you to just raise your hand at the moment you got it.” And you’d see a lot of the hands went up around the cigarette, but some right after, some a few before. So I started getting a sense of the experience of it and I would just do that over and over again, until I felt confident that that was going to work on a bigger level.
NEXT: ‘The start of episode 2 is a surprise, and the end of it is really a surprise…’[pagebreak]
Moving forward, what can we expect from the relationship between the three siblings? Is it hard to trump biology?
It’s hard to trump biology, but then it’s also hard to trump twins; it’s a really hard thing to get inside of for Randall. And then also with Randall and Kevin, there’s two different kinds of brothers. There’s the type of brothers who are intertwined, and then there’s the type of brothers who are always at odds with each other. And Kevin’s kind of person is his twin sister, so it puts this kid on the outside looking in. So there’s different dynamics.
The way this show will function generally speaking now that [the secret] is out is the same. There’s basically four storylines that are always intercut and interconnected. The difference is, is that the [Jack and Rebecca] story line, which will jump about in time, is not just the story of a fourth person or group of people the same age, but it’s the story of their parents when they were their same age. So you’re seeing the kids in the past and then their stories are affecting or commenting on their stories in the future. So it’s the same structure, four storylines. You’re intercutting between them all, but the difference being that one of the stories holds all the other characters in it as well.
And it informs all the other stories.
It informs all the other stories. So, in our episodes, the past comments on the future, and the future comments on the past, and at the ends of each episode you’re like “Oh, I get it all.” And it’s not always very literal. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s very on the nose.
Will viewers find different kinds of surprises waiting for them at the end of episode 2 and beyond?
I think if you were going in blindly after episode 1, you’re like, “Whew, wow. I wonder what happens next.” I think you get a bunch of surprises, but two big surprises. The start of episode 2 is a surprise, and the end of it is really a surprise…. So there are surprises and you’re unfolding this family a little bit, because now the cat’s out of the bag about the device of the show, and now we can start expanding the audience’s knowledge. The only way I can describe it for people is: Imagine that you had 10 home videos of your childhood and your life, and you gave them to somebody and mixed them all up in a bag and said, “Watch them,” but you were watching them a little out of order. And that’s kind of how we’re going to open up the family… Some episodes are going to end with these big surprises. Some are going to end with a huge sense of completion and emotional fulfillment.
Randall is being raised by a white family in 1979, in Pittsburgh. How much will race factor into the story?
It’s a big storyline. It’s one thing to have an interracially adopted child here in Studio City, California, 2016. It’s another thing back in 1979, Pittsburgh. There’s multiple things going on there. There’s a white family in a predominantly white neighborhood adopting a black child. There are three children in one home which is a stress in and of itself. One of those children is replacing essentially a child who died, and with grief and loss. So there’s a lot of complicated elements in that storyline. And then there’s just the typical elements that happen in life. A friend of mine adopted two little girls from Ethiopia, a guy out here in Los Angeles. And there was a moment where his wife was at the mall with one of the girls. and a black woman came up to her and handed her a note and walked away. And the note said, “Fix your daughter’s hair.” And rather than it being a really upsetting thing, it was eye-opening. She was grateful. And I told that story in the [writers’ room]. And it’s become something that in our own way, we’re kind of utilizing in our writers room right now, something that happens to Rebecca with Randall.
Just like I don’t want all of Kate’s stories to be about weight, I don’t want all of Randall’s stories to be about race. But I also don’t want to be so blind as to say, “That isn’t a core part of his story and for this guy abandoned by a father and mother he never knew and adopted by a white family.” it’s a huge part of his identity. We’ve brought in speakers to talk to our writers, we’ve brought in speakers from weight places, Overeaters Anonymous, and people who’ve lost a tremendous amount of weight. We’ve brought in people that are experts on interracial adoption and adoption to speak to those kinds of things. It’s something we’re really trying to do the right way.
Should we be studying the small things on this show?
There are little things in the pilot that you won’t notice that are the entire basis of the third episode of the show, and there are things that are going to happen in this season in the seventh episode that will be the most important thing that happens in the third season of the show.
Click here to see what the stars of This Is Us thought of the twist in the premiere — and how the producers plotted it out.
Click here to read EW’s Fall TV Preview story on This Is Us.