'It's a big, sprawling, ambitious start,' says Dan Fogelman.

By Dan Snierson
September 24, 2019 at 02:49 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC (3)
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You’ve already waited six months for the return of This Is Us. What’s a few more hours? Exactly — it’s too many. Fear not, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman is here to help with intel on the fourth season of NBC’s era-hopping family drama. The season 3 finale peeked into the future to answer questions and generate new ones, bringing the series to what Fogelman has referred to as “halftime,” and now This Is Us will drop several key episodes on you, starting with tonight’s season premiere at 9 p.m. “You have these markers for our entire series — these episodes that we’d always known where they’re going to be placed and what they’re going to do for us and that kind of big picture,” he tells EW. “Our first two episodes in the season are two of those staked-out episodes. It’s a big, sprawling, ambitious start.”

Not to mention, one that he hopes will catch you off guard. “The goal is to never fall into a pattern where the show just becomes expected,” he notes. “We’re coming towards the midpoint of our series, saying, ‘We’re not just sitting back and taking it easy.’” You, however, are advised to sit back, relax, and enjoy this season 4 primer as Fogelman outlines what to expect and hints at (more than) a few surprises.

Jack plays Meet the Parents in the premiere.
You’ve previously been introduced to Rebecca’s kinda-racist mother (Elizabeth Perkins), and now you’ll meet her father (played by Tim Matheson). Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), however, is going in blind to both of them. The premiere whisks you back to the early ’70s where Jack, fresh off his road trip with Rebecca (Mandy Moore), is figuring out the steps of this new relationship, and Rebecca will invite him to dine with dad and mom. Moore and Ventimiglia dropped clues about the dinner in this story, and as Fogelman notes the show will delve deeper into this era in season 4.

“It’s a time period we just love going to,” he says. “We know so much about [Jack] as we know so much about what happens to that family, and to be able to go back in time and learn an origin story of this beloved couple is so, so exciting for us. That’s a big part of our season — the relationship with Rebecca’s family and Jack. Jack is a little bit from the other side of the tracks, compared to Rebecca’s family, and he’s entering this world that is unfamiliar to him at a crossroad point in his life just weeks after meeting the woman who changes everything for him.”

Jack is, of course, still recovering from this time in Vietnam, and figuring out how to process/compartmentalize the horrors of the war. “We’ll see a lot of it this year,” says Fogelman of the adjustment period. “Jack is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He needs to find himself a career. And he needs to do it all while dealing with the trauma of Vietnam and everything that happened with his brother while also trying to woo the love of his life. It’s a complicated period for him.”

Randall and Beth will be Randall and Beth once again.
Season 3 was a rough sledding for this beloved TV couple, but in the finale, they seemed to reach an understanding, opening the metaphorical and literal door to a fresh start. So, yes, it’s fair to say that the worst of marital strife is behind Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). “We had always wanted the third season of the show to put that marriage to its greatest test,” says Fogelman. “And while those dynamics never completely changed — Randall is always going to be a lot, Beth is always going to be a little cooler — I don’t think anybody has the appetite to watch them just continue to fight. They’re getting a fresh start, with the family.”

In more ways than one. The Pearsons have relocated to Philadelphia, where he’ll be closer to his Councilman job and she can pursue her dreams of opening a dance studio. “One of the things that’s really exciting for the show this season in a big picture is that they have these kids — particularly at the age that Tess (Eris Baker) and Deja (Lyric Ross), who are really exiting adolescence and crashing right into the teenage years,” says Fogelman. “And at the same point back in Jack and Rebecca’s story with the little Big Three, those kids are also entering a new chapter of their lives. They’re not just little kids anymore. The problems with the 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds are getting more complicated, their issues are getting more complicated. Even the identity questions that a character like Randall might have are becoming more complicated. So in both of those time periods — Randall with his present-day family and Randall and his past and with his brother and sister — all these kids are entering this new chapter in life at this new age where they’re exploring much more adult stuff.”

Before we move on, though, we must ask: Randall seemed awfully concerned with providing stability for their adopted daughter as she settled in (once again) to the Pearson household. But doesn’t the move to Philly undermine the very thing that Randall was worried about? “It’s a really fair question and it’s something we’re definitely going to explore,” answers Fogelman. “This is the kid who has found a grounding and a home in the suburbs for the first time in her life. Where that goes, what the family might overreact or underreact to in trying to navigate these complicated territory — we have a specialized episode coming towards the midpoint of our series, which really explores some of that stuff.”

Kevin gets another big break.
The former star of The Nanny, who hit the big screen in a Ron Howard-directed movie with Sylvester Stallone, finds himself with another klieg-lit opportunity. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is cast in a movie (get your first look here) with an important director, but he’s also at a crossroads, fresh off his split with Zoe (Melanie Liburd). “Often Kevin’s story, more than all the other characters, is very existential,” says Fogelman. “He’s a guy who’s searching for meaning and his place in the world and also on the bigger more macro level: is he a good person or not? And it’s ironic because he’s the ex-sitcom actor. It would be very easy to view him as the shallowest character. But [what] he’s chasing and trying to navigate is often the most complex stuff. This season really puts him on a path towards starting to figure that out.”

Kate and Toby adjust to parenthood.
In the season 3 finale, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) finally were able to exit the NICU with their prematurely born son, Jack. Now comes more and possibly unexpected hard work. “Every family has challenges with a newborn child,” says Fogelman. “Some are very relatable, some are very unique to that family. Kate and Toby had been on a really fast path of courtship and the marriage and then a delicate and difficult experience having a child and trying to have a child. That can put strains on things, that can pull people closer together and where that goes this season is a big part of our story.”

Prepare to learn more about Nicky. Both Nickys, actually.
Season 3 introduced you to Jack’s younger brother, Nicky, who was seen as a troubled kid headed into Vietnam (Michael Angarano) and a disturbed veteran living in a trailer (Griffin Dunne). Sounds like there’s more to come about Nicky, young and old, in season 4. “We have a good shot at seeing both Nickys,” says Fogelman, who does note that it’s less likely that the show will soon return to combat. “Where we will be mainly living is the period right after Vietnam, but not necessarily going over to the inside of the war.”

The world of This Is Us is expanding — maybe even bursting at the seams.
You saw the season 4 trailer. This season welcomes many new characters, played by such actors as Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, and Asante Blacckk. “The fun of the show this season is expanding the world of our main characters, but [also] expanding and adding people all around them,” says Fogelman. “We have multiple big additions that we’re playing close to the vest right now — tremendous actors that slide right in with our tremendous actors, and they’re playing these huge roles in everybody’s stories.” One character receiving prominent time in the trailer was Morrison’s, who is a military figure of some sort making her return home. “She’s a big addition to our cast, she’s got a very complicated part. We’ve been kind of blown away by her, and both how charming she is, but also her heavy, heavy, dramatic chops. I think it’s going to be an exciting turn for people to see her in the role that I cannot talk about. [The character] is pretty badass.”

When it comes to those flash-forward mysteries, context will precede answers.
“This season is about getting there,” explains Fogelman. “The last time we went into what we call the deep future, we really gave a lot of answers and there’s a few questions still looming. To go back there anytime soon and provide more answers would just be providing answers; now it’s about watching the path towards those answers, and that’s going to take a minute. Who is this kid referring to Kevin as his father? Where’s Kate? What’s the status of Kate and Toby? It will take a while to get there, but that’s part of the fun of moving forward into the series.” Fine, fine, but can he at least drop a hint about how the dire the situation is — or what the situation is — with future Rebecca? “We’re in the ballpark of a much older woman at this point,” he says. “It’s a part of our journey, in the seasons to come… I can say that Mandy is going to have so much stuff to do and it’s exciting because Mandy is so tremendous in the series and we’re really just getting started. By the end of this series, she’s going to need a long vacation. We’re going to work her really hard.”

You will meet the mother of Kevin’s child this season — whether you realize it or not.
As mentioned, the season 3 finale packed many mysteries, including who the mother of Kevin’s son is. Clearly, her identity is being teased out for sport, but maybe we can ask Fogelman this: Is it someone who viewers already know? “It could be someone we met,” says Fogelman, “or it could be someone we have not met.” Don’t worry — he does add a more helpful hint: “It definitely will have been somebody we’ve met by the end of this season.”

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Episode Recaps

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