This Is Us creator: Vietnam is big part of season 3, but 'Jack and Nicky is even bigger'
There are probably many ways to sum up the heartbreaking, bittersweet, curveball-throwing drama that is to come in season 3 of This Is Us, but here’s one to start with: Oh, brother!
Yes, Nicky, the mysterious little sibling of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) — who apparently died in Vietnam while serving with Jack during the war — will play a key role in the coming season. Speaking of siblings, there’s plenty of questions surrounding the lives of the Big Three: Newlyweds Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) will make another attempt to expand their family before Toby will fall into depression (as seen in that season 2 finale flash-forward). Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) will have their hands full with unruly foster child Deja (Lyric Ross) and the rehabilitation of William’s old building. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is also causing a stir in their household, thanks to his blossoming romance with Beth’s cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd); the two of them are heading to Vietnam as Kevin seeks answers about his late father’s time in the war.
And let’s not forget about that season 2 finale scene that hurled us deep into the future, when Old Randall and Adult Tess (Iantha Richardson) dreaded seeing “her,” whoever she might be. Surely, your brain is swirling with curiosity, uncertainty, and scenarios. While we can’t flash-forward to the part where you get the answers you seek in season 3, we can offer up a few insights and hints via this Q&A with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The end of last season posed questions for several of our characters in the near future — or in the distant future. Where do we pick up at the beginning of this season? Is it a season-long journey to fill in the missing pieces to those puzzles that were left in the last season?
DAN FOGELMAN: I think “a season-long journey to fill in the pieces of the puzzle that were left in the last season” is a good way of putting it. I would be so bold as to say that the puzzle pieces will fall into place by the halfway mark of season 3.
There was some inherent darkness to last season, which is natural given that you were telling the story of Jack’s death. The season 2 finale wedding certainly felt like a bit of a respite and a reward from that. Does that lightness continue in this season to some extent? And what themes will emerge as the season progresses?
I think the season will have lighter moments. What we don’t have is the death of America’s most loved patriarch in the middle of our season. So by the very nature of not having that, the season gets lighter. I would argue that while we have some heavy things happen to our characters last season that got a lot of attention, there were also wildly light episodes and moments of laughter. I think the fact that Jack is not dying this season, William [Ron Cephas Jones] is not dying this season, there is a load that comes off it. We’re still exploring really, really heavy, intricate subject matter. The show lives best in stuff that’s really complicated and not just all easy. So while characters aren’t dying, running into a fire to save a dog, we’ll have equal weight — but maybe not quite the heaviness.
There’s much for us to still learn about Jack even though he’s passed. He’s a fairly mysterious guy when it came to his past. What kind of secrets and revelations await — and how might we come to view Jack differently? Or is it more that we’re just continuing to flesh out the painting, a more honest portrayal of Super Dad?
Jack has clearly got a complicated childhood and a complicated past, and a complicated past specifically in Vietnam. He’s clearly a guy that wears everything on his sleeve with his family, but also a guy who everything that came before the family has been a bit of a mystery and a secret. So I kind of equate to it meeting someone later in life, developing a friendship with someone later in life, and it’s only years into your friendship when you start really unearthing what happened to them before you knew them. I think that’s what’s going to happen for the audience a little bit. You’ll get a fuller picture of Jack by learning about what happened to him before we actually met him.
Justin called the Vietnam revelations about Jack “super-heartbreaking” and “shocking,” and Milo said that he didn’t see them coming. How would you characterize these revelations about Jack’s time in Vietnam?
I don’t know that I would find it all so shocking, inasmuch as it just feels really surprising to learn new information about this guy who you feel you know so well. I think that’s what feels possibly shocking to the guys, is seeing a different version of this guy as he existed before he knew Mandy [Moore, who plays Jack’s wife, Rebecca] and before he had kids. I think that’s what’s most surprising about it — seeing a character in a different world. It’s almost like knowing somebody only as a dentist and then learning that in a previous life they were a famous rock star. It’s not necessarily all shocking, just in the reveals and the mysteries, but more surprising in terms of who this guy was and what he was doing, and what his responsibilities and goals and hopes were at that time.
How much of Jack’s season 3 story will involve Vietnam?
Early in the season we go to a solo Vietnam episode. One of our special episodes that really tracks Jack’s story to Vietnam and tracks his history in his family as it relates to war and being a part of the military. Then, once that is done, Vietnam becomes one of our storylines that in progressive episodes continues to evolve for a bit until some answers are gotten and the story is told. It certainly is a world that you can live in for an entire television series without ever leaving, but we want it to fit inside of our story, see how it relates to our family, to Jack, to the kids who are trying to figure out their father’s story.
You added Tim O’Brien [Vietnam veteran and author of The Things They Carried] as a consultant. How seriously did you take the research — and how do you make sure that you were capturing Vietnam accurately?
We’re taking it very seriously. We’re going to Vietnam to shoot there. Tim came on to consult for us and to help us, and I think in his own has fallen in love with the show and is taking it very seriously, and we’re determined to do right by him. He’s a writing hero of mine and all of us on the writing staff. We wanted to do the story right by Tim and vets and other people that have experienced Vietnam. We’re taking it very seriously — in the same manner that we take seriously stories that involve weight, or anxiety, or miscarriages, or adoption. We’re trying to treat Vietnam with the same respect and research.
Michael Arangano has been cast as Nicky. What did you like about him for the role?
I liked Michael for a while. I don’t even know him. I thought he had a quality that is very much both physically and something kind of in his eyes that feels very much like Milo, but at the same point feels very different, which often happens with brothers. There’s a connective tissue in terms of DNA, but sometimes we’re wildly different than our siblings. I feel like he’s going to bring that to the part in a really interesting way.
What can you hint about the brotherly relationship over in Vietnam and the trauma that may have claimed Nicky’s life?
As much as Vietnam is a big part of our season, the brother relationship between Jack and Nicky is even bigger. Obviously our show is a show about family and Jack being this man who raised two brothers; reflecting on his relationship with his brother feels very much a part of our show. Even when we go to Vietnam, the show still lives in the This Is Us space, because there’s brother stuff happening between the lines.
What can you say about how much guilt or responsibility or grief Jack feels about Nicky’s death? Clearly he’s stuffing down a lot there.
I think it’s clear when you watch two seasons of our show very carefully and look at Jack — this incredible father and incredible husband who’s almost referred to by his family as a superhero, but also clearly battles privately inner demons, alcoholism, a really complicated and abusive childhood, an experience in Vietnam that he cannot even speak about, as so many men who experienced that war say that they haven’t even spoken about it with their wives and children — there’s a story to be told here, and it’s not just a cursory, light, “I didn’t see any action in Vietnam” story. I can’t give away a lot of the details, but I can say that clearly some stuff happened over there — and that’s what we’re going to be showing this season.
NEXT PAGE: Fogelman on what to expect from the flash-forward mysteries
What appealed to you about telling the story of Old Randall, Adult Tess and “her”? How serious are the stakes?
Clearly we’ve presented it that the stakes are serious — I don’t think that would be a misread.
What appealed to you about telling this story that flashed deep into the future?
What really appealed to me about going into the future was that this is a show about two things: This is a show about family, and it’s a show about time. What’s really interesting about the life cycle of a family is that at a certain point the children become the parents, and the present becomes the past. That was always something I was really interested in exploring in the show. Not just having three siblings looking back at their upbringing and seeing how it informed their present, but also thinking of their lives in the present as the potential past, or a future where their children are looking back on them as the parents.
That all sounds really complicated and mind-numbing, but that’s the draw of going to the future. It comes with huge complications; designing a future is not easy. The makeup is a challenge. It’s something that we feel in small doses is a real important way of continuing our story and showing different end points that just can exist within the five, eight seasons of a television show.
Rob Morgan is joining the show as a city councilman. Does he cross paths with Randall and Beth, who are busy renovating William’s building?
There is an intersection between the family and Rob Morgan. I don’t know how much I can get into about which characters it is that start engaging with him and why.
Beth is not going to approve of whatever budding relationship is happening between her brother-in-law, Kevin, and her cousin Zoe. What does this do to the greater Pearson family dynamic?
Interestingly enough, the first episode of the season is really Beth getting right in the middle of that — slowly figuring it out and obviously having a reaction. Susan does it so wonderfully and it’s very funny. The obvious fear about two people like that dating would be, “What in the hell happens if this goes bad?” These are intensely close family members, and Kevin certainly hasn’t shown a propensity for stable, long-term relationships in his life. I think in the first episode back, somethings will surprise about the reaction of Beth and Randall to the relationship.
Over to Toby, who’s battling depression in the near future. We know he’s struggled in the past, but we’ve generally seen him upbeat. What are the triggers for him, and does it involve infertility struggles?
That’s definitely a part of their story on this season. The first episode for Toby and Kate is a very intense story. It’s very moving, in a somewhat surprising way. It’s fair to say that of the puzzle pieces that are set up at the end of [last] season, some of the Toby ones may be the first shoe to start slowly dropping.
There was a fun scene last year where the non-Pearsons — Beth, Toby, and Miguel [Jon Huertas] — aired their Pearson grievances. How much will season 3 fill in the histories of these characters?
Our plan is to really fill them in quite a bit. It’s a big part of where we’ll spend time this season. An episode early in our season is named “Toby,” so we’re really going to dive in. With the exception of Jack, we tend to know an awful lot about the pasts and the upbringings of our characters because we’ve actually watched them, but Toby, Beth and Miguel are people who came to us midstream. So there’s a real opportunity to learn more about their pasts in this season.
There’s been a long game in progress of showing the audience that it’s not a zero-sum game with Jack and Miguel — that just because Jack isn’t around doesn’t mean that Miguel is a bad replacement husband for Rebecca. He’s been very patient with his family, even when Kevin was very cold to him. What blanks will you will be filling in this season? Do we see the reconnection between Miguel and Rebecca after their Facebook exchange, or the reason behind the long hiatus?
There were a couple of things we hope to fill in. Number one is: Miguel was married, Miguel had a family, but we haven’t heard much about them. It’s interesting that we haven’t seen them a lot in the present-day Miguel-and-Rebecca storyline. And if you are a big enough fan of the show, you also know that Rebecca’s best friend at one point was Miguel’s wife, who got divorced from him. That’s another interesting component to learn a little bit more about. It’s interesting to know how Miguel and Rebecca reconnected and get there. I think it’s also really interesting to go from the house burning down to what led to the separation, and that’s something that we’ll be exploring in depth this season as well.
How much of William will we see in season 3? He was technically a regular in season 2, but we didn’t see as much of him as we thought we might.
Yeah, hopefully quite a bit. Our show is always for the better when we have Ron in it, and our second season was a little tricky only in that so much of our real estate had to be devoted to this big Jack story, and it ate up a lot of time. Our second episode has a big William story, and we have others coming. Of our first seven or eight episodes that we’ve got written right now, he’s a substantial part of three or four of them. Our hope is that he’ll really be an active part of the show. We love it every time he’s on the screen.
How will his character factor into this season? Are there more revelations about him?
We seem to be moving in two different ways. The most easiest and obvious way is like we did in our season premiere last year, where somebody just reflects on a conversation or a moment they had with him. But through the building that Randall and Beth bought — that was William’s building — it provides a bit of connective tissue that allows us to play in time and see a story that was happening in that area with William before he knew Randall, and currently with Randall and Beth. So that’s a real treat for us, and part of our excitement about Randall and Beth buying the building was it gave us another entry point to get into William’s stories.
The season premiere takes us back to the ’70s to witness Jack and Rebecca’s first date. What intrigued you about that moment in time enough to build the premiere around it?
It’s extremely good television to watch these two have their origin story. It’s always interesting after you lose somebody — which we kind of feel like we did with Jack this past season — to almost go in and put in those old videotapes and watch them at a much earlier stage of life. And I think that’s what this feels like. It’s really interesting when you’ve lost somebody in such a hard way, when you look back at the earlier stuff, it becomes all the more poignant, because characters are saying things they don’t realize the import of. A chance meeting at a bar — how that formed the entire family of characters, and now we know their entire story, and everything that befalls them becomes really, really interesting when you tell it in this particular order. Plus we get to put Mandy in really cute outfits, and that’s my wife’s [Caitlin Thompson, who plays Madison] favorite thing. Whenever I ask her what storyline she likes the most, she’s like, “I like anytime Mandy’s in that hat.” So that becomes a marching order for me personally.
This Is Us season 3 premieres Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.