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This Is Us: Behind the scenes of NBC's breakout hit

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ART STREIBER for EW

Family matters — a lot — and This Is Us is proving it in charming and clever ways. NBC’s new dramedy is winning viewers with a fairly novel take on the family drama/comedy, one that toys with time, convention, and, sure, our emotions. Which is why we decided to go behind the scenes of the feel-good hit of the fall in this week’s EW cover story. 

The show, created by Crazy, Stupid, Love screenwriter Dan Fogelman, follows the joys and struggles of two parents, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and their three children, Kate (Chrissy Metz), her twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), and her adopted brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown), unless you haven’t seen the first episode, in which case this is a show about four people (one with a pregnant wife) who just happen to be celebrating their 36th birthday, and you should totally watch to see what happens next. The twist at the end of the Sept. 20 premiere that revealed the full Pearson connection was the kind of game-changer that warmed the heart and burned up social media.

“We all want to be like, ‘Oh, I saw that coming,’” Hartley tells EW. “One of the things I love about sports is when you see something amazing happen and everyone in the room goes ‘WHAT???’ says Hartley. “That’s what people were doing, just admitting that mind blow. ‘You got me.’ But it wasn’t a gimmick.”

Indeed, This Is Us is peeling layers of the family in intriguing if disorienting ways. The show, which has already told stories in three time periods, will add a fourth in coming weeks — and will hit a half-dozen by season’s end. “Imagine you had 10 VHS tapes of your entire adolescence and your parents’ marriage, and you mixed them up in a bag, so you don’t know what order you’re going to be watching them,” says Fogelman. “Just by the way your dad and mom are talking from behind that camera, you can say, ‘Oh, there was a little more tension during that period in their lives.’ ‘Something got better there.’ ‘Something got worse there.’”

Through better and worse, the show is exploring such issues as self-worth, race, adoption, familial strain, and loss. “I’ve been inundated with these stories of confidence and hope from women and men alike, but a lot of women” says Metz, whose Kate is pledging to change her life and her weight, all while trepidatiously entering a romance with the wise-cracking Toby (Chris Sullivan). “So many women are like, ‘Wow, I never thought I would see myself on TV.’”  Sullivan, meanwhile, believes the show is resonating with audiences for two reasons: “Shame and connection. Each and every character has something that they feel shame about, and they are struggling to get through it by connecting with people that they love. That is universal and timeless, and I don’t think it happens very often on TV.” 

For those reasons and more, the cast members (almost all of whom teared up while being interviewed for this story, by the way) found a special draw to the series. “It was intriguing to play somebody who is frequently a fish out of water,” says Brown of Randall, who winds up locating his biological father who left him at a fire station. “He’s a fish out of water sometimes with his family, because he’s the black guy, and he can be the fish out of water with a group full of African-Americans, because he’s the black guy that’s raised by a white family. So, there’s something always [with] Randall trying to figure out where exactly he fits in. Then the part with the father resonates hugely because of having lost my father at 10 and recognizing how deep that goes.”  

While the show boasts a high Kleenex count —  “I don’t know of anything out there right now that makes it feel good to cry, and you still feel hopeful and full at the very end of your emotional release,” notes Ventimiglia — it also manages to mine moments of humor in the heavier material, such as the tentative bonding process between Randall and biological father William (Ron Cephas Jones). “There’s some really funny moments that come out of the awkwardness from both of them,” chuckles Jones. Says Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Randall’s protective spouse Beth: “It buoys you, so you don’t feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this, but can my heart take it tonight?’ You know that there’s going to be a little medicine in there to pick you back up and can keep you moving.”

And the series always keeps things moving through time, often examining the impact — subtle or noisy — that a parent’s actions can have on a child’s life years later when that child is grown up. “It’s like we’re discovering those direct connections to what these people are facing in their adult lives now, and being able to specifically go back to these really monumental events that have occurred, it just informs who we are,” says Moore. “It’s being in therapy. It’s really beautiful to learn like, ‘Wow, that’s why I am who I am. That’s why I do this. That’s why I’m stuck in this same old pattern.’ It’s beautiful, and it’s endless. You can never learn enough about yourself.”

To learn more about how This Is Us came to the small screen — and to see what’s next for the Pearson family — pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. 

ART STREIBER for EW

For more on this week’s cover story, watch EW The Show, available now here, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

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