This Is Us creator explains how the pandemic and Black Lives Matter will factor into season 5
When the season 4 finale of This Is Us was filmed several lifetimes ago — or at least much earlier this year — the world looked strikingly different. From masks to fights about masks to mass protests about racial injustice, the majority of 2020 has been dominated by two seismic events: the coronavirus pandemic and the racial reckoning accompanying the Black Lives Matter movement. As the nation copes with tragedy and attempts to figure out order in a new world, the Hollywood writers who create a different kind of drama have to decision to make: give viewers an escape from the horrors and challenges of the day, or attempt to reflect and comment on what they are seeing through the eyes of their characters.
After much thought and dialogue, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman has chosen the latter, bringing our world into the world of the Pearsons, who are the focus of his time-hopping, issue-exploring, Kleenex-depleting family drama. "It's a really huge challenge for us," he told EW this summer. "I keep saying, 'As if juggling this show with 18,000 timelines and characters isn't hard enough.' It really is a complicated question. I can't tell you the amount of debate that has gone into everything from our show existing in a world that corona has not happened — like many shows are going to choose to do — to making an entire first nine episodes all happening during a quarantine period in our off-season. We've been all over the map. I think we have a plan that splits the balance."
On balance, Fogelman and his writers came to see these challenges in unspooling the next chapters of This Is Us not as obstacles but as opportunities to enhance the story lines already in play or in the works. "Here are the new rules we've been given," he summed up. "How do we continue to try to top ourselves and make things even better than they were?"
As you recall, season 4 ended with brothers Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) casually tossing devastating insults at each other, Kevin learning that he was going to be a father (twice over), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) deciding to adopt a child, and the cognitive health of the Rebecca (Mandy Moore) in question. With This Is Us inching toward the endgame — season 6 is set to be the show's last — Fogelman recently elaborated on how and why the show's next chapters will incorporate our rapidly evolving real-world circumstances, which he feels infuse will drama with added connection and resonance. "[It] has allowed us to stick with our plan for the shape of the characters' story lines, but makes present a whole host of different feelings and issues as we all try to make sense of our world right now," he says. "There's a lot of things hanging in the balance. And that can often be a meditative time where you're thinking, 'Where does life go from here?' And I think on a macro level, zooming out, I think that's where a lot of people find themselves right now, which is: What happens next? What do I want for my family and for the world right now? How do I make sense of all the darkness? I think that leads to a lot. In a lot of ways, it's going to be a contemplative season and a meditative season, where characters are trying to figure out what makes themselves tick and they try to look back on their childhoods and their parenting and the way they're becoming as parents and husbands and wives and saying, 'Am I doing the right thing?' That's a place where we live very comfortably."
Exactly how will these characters live through these times? Is it foreground, backdrop or both? (The first trailer for the season 5 premiere showed Kevin in a mask.) "Our show has different characters in different stages of life, older characters battling illness," says Fogelman. "We have a character who's a local city councilman in a major metropolis. We have characters who have been bathed in privilege as movie stars on the West Coast. Not every character, every story line is going to be all COVID all the time. It's going to be present in the world as it's present in our lives right now. Our lives haven't stopped, but they've been pretty altered. What we want to try to do is find the balance. Some people are wildly affected in different ways about what's going on in the world right now. It would be really simplistic that everybody's just kind of locked in their house, getting bored of Zoom calls when hundreds of thousands of people are dead and it's affecting different communities differently. So we're attempting to put a human face on what's gone on in the last half-a-year to a year."
While the endgame for the Pearsons will remain unchanged, their journeys to that destination will be altered by these events, opening up the show in promising ways, according to Fogelman. "You think about characters like Kate and Toby, who are nervously and cautiously undertaking the big move of adopting a second child," he says. "That becomes a more complicated decision in the midst of a pandemic. There's also the reality of our world right now. Just because there's a virus raging doesn't mean there aren't children who need homes. That's the kind of stuff that was always going to be a part of the season, but now there's a different lens on it. Having had a child myself in the midst of this, having babies is a different experience right now. Having a baby was going to be an intense experience and a life-defining experience. But under the umbrella of this moment, it felt like for all the gazillions of people who are having babies in the course of this year, it's an opportunity to put on screen a version of what they maybe experienced."
That same philosophy applies to the other game-changing event of 2020: the Black Lives Matter movement. This Is Us is positioned to address the conversations taking place, given that the show has been tackling issues of race and identity through Randall, a Black child who was adopted by a white family. "It's going to be reflected very directly in our two-hour premiere," Fogelman says. "We have a show that explores both a white family and a Black family inside of the same family, and to not be looking at everything right now, I feel like it would not be truthful. Sterling has a gigantic arc this season, as he deals with this fallout from his brother first and the situation with his mother. There's a lot going on. We're addressing it head-on." (The second trailer for the season premiere showed Randall and his family watching the BLM protests on TV, with Randall telling his wife, Beth, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, "What we're dealing with as a people is just so tragic.")
One would think that the possibility for instructive conversation lurks in many places in the Pearson universe. (Perhaps via Kevin, who lived much of his privileged-in-many-ways life with blinders on, and has never truly processed what Randall has been through?) "Looking back at our childhoods with our adult eyes is something that the show was built off of," says Fogelman. "The reckoning that's happening right now in America is happening for everyone. It's a moment in time for this show that is uniquely American in a lot of ways. To capture this moment — it's complicated, and we want to dive in and we want to try and do it artfully and we want to try to do it justice. So we've been working very hard. We've been having really intensive conversations in our writers' room, with our cast."
There also were plenty of conversations about how to pull off any of this safely in a pandemic. Filming on This Is Us was delayed a few months in the wake of the coronavirus spread, as it was on many shows, and production resumed only a few weeks ago. How will the series get to business as usual, which includes romantic scenes, in a most unusual time? There has been rigorous testing and social distancing, some of which you can see in pictures tweeted by the cast and the creator. (At one point, when all options were on the table, there was even talk of using mannequins for more intimate scenes, though there are no current plans for that.) "My mandate as the boss is that safety has to, and always will be, the number-one priority on our set, regardless of anything else," says Fogelman. "Our crew and our cast and our writers are [agile] enough that if something is not going to work well, we'd rather find a way to write it and execute it [in a way] that will work well, rather than do something half-ass. But what we won't do is anything that's unsafe… You're treating every crew member and cast member with the same protection you would treat your own family. And if at any point I don't feel like I can do that, we don't go forward."
For now, the Pearsons go forward into this brave (and scary) new world. Fogelman says that he worked harder on this two-hour season premiere — which will take place on the Big Three's 40th and first birthdays — than any other episode, to "get it right."
"It feels really big," he sums up. "We're always conscious to come out of the gates swinging a little bit and remind people, 'Oh yeah, this show's still on and we're still here.' I'm very proud of what we're trying to undertake."
The season 5 premiere of This Is Us airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC. Chrissy Metz also dropped hints about the new season, as did Chris Sullivan. And you might want to hear what Milo Ventimiglia had to say. Susan Kelechi Watson, too. Oh, and Sterling K. Brown. Plus Mandy Moore.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.