'It’s a gigantic story,' says Dan Fogelman of the plot revelation in the final minutes of the episode.

By Dan Snierson
September 24, 2019 at 10:08 PM EDT
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Warning: This article contains plot details from “Strangers,” the season 4 premiere of This Is Us.

This Is Us returned to NBC on Tuesday night, welcoming viewers back with a warm, get-the-fam-back-together premiere that was populated with all their favorite characters. (Checks notes.) Nope, that’s not what happened. At all.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC (2)

NBC’s earnest-yet-sly family drama uncorked a world-expanding, disorienting episode that introduced a slew of new characters to the fold, only connecting these “strangers” to the Pearsons toward the end of the episode. Meet Cassidy (Jennifer Morrison), a steely military officer whose wartime experience in Afghanistan left her detached, drinking, and alienating her husband, Ryan (Nick Wechsler), and young son upon her return; after she lost control (and the family, for now), she sought help from a veteran’s support group. Her first meeting was interrupted by… Griffin Dunne’s Nicky, who threw a chair through the window in a fit of drunken anger.

Also meet Malik (Asante Blackk), a teenager who’s trying to juggle being a teenager while providing for the infant daughter he adores (and for whom he even starts sussing out shady means to pay for pre-K). Malik has the world’s most supportive parents, Darnell (Omar Epps) and Kelly (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who shower him with love and babysitting. Darnell — who’s perhaps aiming to challenge Jack for father of the year — made sure that Malik had a few moments of carefree bliss at a friend’s barbecue, where Malik became immediately smitten with a new-to-Philly girl whose name is… Deja (Lyric Ross).

Oh, and definitely go back to the future to meet the bold, quippy, struggling blind musician who married the waitress at the diner (Auden Thornton) he happened to visit by broken-plate happenstance and is now finding burgeoning fame, because this guy is… Jack (Blake Stadnik), present-day premature son of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan). Both grandmother and mother had music dreams, and he was the one who seemed to turn similar dreams into standing-O reality.

While that aforementioned twist took place deep into the future, “Strangers” was anchored in the past, traveling back to the early ’70s as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) returned from their magical road trip and were feeling out the possibilities of this new relationship. Jack was invited to meet her parents (Elizabeth Perkins and Tim Matheson) at a country club dinner, and the underdog Vietnam vet from the wrong side of the tracks managed to impress at the table. Ultimately, though, Rebecca’s dad shook his hand and told him that wasn’t good enough for his daughter. He may be right that Jack is haunted by the war, but he’ll find out that he’s dead wrong about his suitability as Rebecca’s suitor. Let’s borrow a sport coat from Miguel and not even try to play it cool by calling TIU creator Dan Fogelman first to break down this unconventional season 4 premiere.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The show is always looking for new ways to tell its stories, and this one certainly breaks out of the traditional-episode format, in a way that throws viewers off their game. How did you decide to introduce so many new characters in such a fashion, especially as the welcome-back episode? I mean, the Sterling K. Brown doesn’t even appear until the 43-minute mark.
DAN FOGELMAN: Right. I wish there was more that went into it. It was always part of the plan for a while now, which was in the middle of our run. We were going to introduce some new characters in an unusual way that take our main characters off course, or in a new direction.

When you’re coming into it fresh as a fan of the show, you’re watching it and hopefully engaging with the new characters and wondering, “Where are these people and who are they going to cross with and how?”… But then there’s a part where hopefully that drifts away and you’re just in the stories. And then it’s such a relief — for me, at least — when you see the Big Three come back in and you realize, “Oh, I’ve gotten to meet these characters on their own without viewing them through the prism of Randall [Brown] and Kevin [Justin Hartley] and Kate. Now I understand a little bit more about who these people are and I’m seeing the beginnings of the connection between characters, so I’m ready to go on a ride and see how these now fully formed characters in my mind’s eye will enter our world.”

Normally you would meet characters through the eyes of your main characters, which always gives you a little bit of a skewed perspective, because you’re meeting them through our characters. But that’s not how you meet strangers in real life. The first time you meet the person who becomes your husband or wife or your new boss or your business partner, they’ve had a whole life before you and the meeting with them is your first experience of them. So I wanted to give the audience that feeling of getting to know these people before you got to know them in relation to our main characters.

We see that Cassidy will cross paths with Nicky, and we know that Kevin has been trying to care for Nicky. What kind of dynamics will unravel between these three? Fans were initially speculating that Jennifer was brought into the show as a love interest for Kevin, but it appears to be much deeper and/or different than that.
I can’t say too much about it other than the relationship is complicated, it’s formative, and it’s a very deep, interesting, bizarre relationship. And whether or not it’s ever romantic is for the series to delve into a little bit later on. But it’s an interesting thing when you look back — she’s going to be somebody who adjusts a part of the course of Kevin’s life. As is the entire first half of the season that he’s embarking on. I had just texted Justin the other day — I think he’s doing maybe his most interesting work of the entire series so far in this season. And that’s saying something.

At a very formative age, Malik has the responsibility of this baby, but he also has incredibly supportive parents. What intrigued you about telling his story?
Like the entire country, we’re obsessed with the young man as an actor. Actually, he had come into audition before I’d seen When They See Us, and I was like, “Who on earth is this kid? He’s a prodigy!” So as an actor, he’s just exceptional. For the character, there’s a couple of things at play. Obviously we didn’t build up this character and that family to just have him be a guy Deja met once at a barbecue. He’s going to play a big part in Randall’s family’s story — and Deja’s story particularly. But also we have an episode coming up where it combines the families, and it’s interesting and it plays in socioeconomics and it goes into parenting and it goes into Randall’s origin story. The basic, simple fact of his daughter becoming interested in a young man who has a child and what that might do to Randall and Beth — and simultaneously painting a picture that hopefully shows something interesting about this young man and how he cares for his daughter and how supportive his family is and the type of God of Carnage-type of moment we’re building to all these great parental actors — it’s one of the things I’m most excited about for our series this season.

You’ve said that the flash-forward era, which is 12 to 15 years from the present, would be the farthest point we’d go into the future with the nuclear Pearson family. When Jack performs at the concert, he’s a young man, in his early 20s. You said that this new future is about 10 years after we saw Rebecca at the house. How deep are we going, ultimately? Will we ever flash beyond that?
Beyond Jack at the concert? I mean, anything’s possible. It’s not in the current plan right now. I’m afraid of flying cars [laughs] and a world without water, and what that all looks like. We do have plans for the future and that which we call “the deeper future “— because we call it the one where Rebecca’s in bed “the deep future” — but I think we would only being going past that linearly. Meaning a continuation of where we’ve been with Jack, but not even jumping further into the 2300s or anything like that.

Blindness can be associated with a premature birth. How will Jack’s blindness affect Kate and Toby in the present day moving forward?
It’s a gigantic story. We’ve worked with a bunch of different people who have been advising us and talked to a bunch of people and our actor [Stadnik is legally blind] to try and get it right. Raising a child is a complicated process, and raising a blind child comes with extra challenges. Obviously, having a newborn child — with or without sight — is a challenging time for young parents. For any parents. You’re snipping at each other, you’re exhausted. [Now] there’s added stuff. This was not expected. It’s a surprise and that’s a big part of their season this year.

How important was it to you to cast someone who is sight-impaired? And what did Blake bring to this role?
Well, he brought everything. He’s exceptionally talented. It was important to us to not cast a sighted actor here. It was also very important to us that we have somebody who can hold the screen and sing, and Blake just checked a tremendous amount of boxes. I found myself increasingly proud of him. He’s a young man who was put into an atmosphere — regardless of vision, just in terms of acting experience — that was pretty new to him. He was being asked to do a tremendous amount of high-degree-of-difficulty stuff very quickly on a very, very high scale of season premiere of a very popular show and carrying a lot of weight. And he was one of those guys that was just never flustered by it. Never overwhelmed by the moment. We shot the entire concert scene in about five minutes during an intermission at the Greek [Theatre, in Los Angeles], where we got the audience to stay in their seats. He had to go out there on his own, and he got one and a half takes through the song. We were supposed to have 10 minutes and we realized we buy some goodwill with the band and the crowd if we just cut off after five because Blake nailed it and we just pulled him off. I mean, that’s not easy stuff for an experienced actor to walk into. Not that Blake’s not an experienced actor, but experienced on-camera actor. So it was very exciting to watch a young man step up to the moment.

We see him with the empty alcohol bottles after a night of trying to write a song. That’s loaded imagery when it comes to the Pearsons, when you think of their addiction issues. Is that something you’ll be delving into the near future?
It could be. We’re not returning to future Jack for a little bit, although we do have plans. Those are just little details of how stuff kind of gets passed down without even noticing it or not passed down. So it’s not something we necessarily focused on, but it’s a good thing to become aware of.

There’s a great and surprising moment in the past when Rebecca’s father rejects Jack even after helping him cover up the tag on his sports coat. Does he ultimately nix Jack because he believes he won’t be able to provide for Rebecca — or that he’s irreparably harmed from the war? Or is it a combination of both?
It’s probably a combination of both. There’s some real socioeconomic class stuff at play here. Jack’s a blue-collar guy from a blue-collar family, and I think it radiates off him in a very positive way. And clearly Rebecca’s family is not that and it radiates off them. I don’t think Rebecca’s father is a bad guy, hopefully, and if it was just about class and money, that would be enough, but I do think he’s lived enough to see a man who does have some demons, which Jack does. We know from knowing his future that he’s able to keep them at bay for the most part. But Jack wouldn’t essentially be the father’s first choice in a mate for his daughter, who he’s clearly very close with and very protective of.

We tend to paint those types of characters with a very broad brush; they’re the bad guy who says, “I hate you and you’re never going to be with my daughter,” and he’s a cruel, vicious bastard at heart. I don’t think that’s the case here. I think he’s protective. And I think he’s wrong, but he also feels he’s right and he’s doing something out of his goodness. And that makes for a complicated relationship and character.

Next week’s episode is called “The Pool 2.” That first episode dealt with race and weight in compelling ways. What can you hint about the return to the pool?
It’s a generational story. We planned the first two episodes of this season for quite a while. We have these marker episodes where we know we’re going to hit stuff at certain times, and we always thought that the beginning of the season would be these first two episodes and a return to the pool, where you’re able to go back to the same pool at the same time of year and remind our audience — and us — how long it’s been since those little kids first started in the first season to where they are now, and really focus on what a big part of this season is about, which is: As kids get older, the problems don’t go away. They just get more complicated and nuanced, and the problems of our Big Three kids and the parental concerns of Jack and Rebecca are not going away. They’re just getting more fully formed, and kind of quieter. It’s a really exciting area for us to explore both with those kids, but also with Randall’s children, who are also simultaneously getting older and more complicated.

Don’t leave us hanging. Did Miguel (Jon Huertas) take the stained sport coat back?
I believe that Miguel took the stained sport coat back.

For more on what to expect this season on This Is Us, read these 8 hints from Fogelman.

Want more Fall TV Preview scoop? Get EW’s October issue for FREE on Apple News, or buy a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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