Though that final scene, which showed a burned-down house, was only filmed in the last week, Fogelman says the surprise reveal was always part of his plan from the beginning. “We’ve known what this season was before anyone heard of this show,” he says. He sold the show to NBC based off a spec script, and as part of his 45-minute pitch to the network, he laid out the course of subsequent seasons. “Nothing was a surprise to us in both how he died and when we were going to show it,” he says. “That’s always been the plan. At the end of the first season, there was a bit of chaos with people going, ‘I need to know how Jack died.’ But we didn’t adjust our plan… Hopefully people like it but the one thing I can sleep easy knowing is this was the plan. We’ve haven’t adjusted too much to please or not please [the audience].
The arc of the second season is already well-underway — the writers have broken all 18 episodes, 10 are written and seven have been filmed. And the upcoming episodes, he promises, will delve more into Jack’s death and the issues it brings up among all the Pearsons — something he’s intimately familiar with, because of his own mother’s death ten years ago.
“Whether I intend to or not I’m writing about it a lot,” he says. “There was no goodbye. It was sudden. It was unexpected. So I’ve been exploring that an awful lot. She was the person in my life. It’s the hinge upon which my life swings. I came out ten years later OK on the other end, but it took a while.”
This season will mirror his own struggle with coming to terms with his mother’s death in the months after she died. “Very much this season, we’re living in that year, in the past storyline,” he says. “It would be a lie to say, OK we’re now done with Jack’s death and we’re going to explore these other things. Because these other things are the core of who these people are.”
Several clues were planted throughout the season premiere that will get answered over the course of the season, he says, comparing it to “Big Little Lies,” which laid out a mystery before revealing the details. “I hope we can do our own small dramedy version of that,” he says. “You’ve seen the end point. You’ve seen the house. You’ve seen a lot of clues. And now we’re going to seeing little things build. We’re not going to prolong this until the fifth season. You’re going to see it this year.”
Fogelman says he’s “relieved” that the reveal is finally out there — and that the audience was able to be surprised. “I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point without things being spoiled ahead of time,” he says. “That was important for me, not robbing the audience of the experience of being surprised.” Plus, he says, “Our cast has been sitting on this from day one. They had to know because it informs their characters.”
He admits he feels pressure going into this season, given the expectations that followed last season’s breakout success. “We know that a certain point, the likelihood is that the pendulum swings — I don’t know if that’s tomorrow, season 5 or season 3,” he says. “At some point, the ratings, the critical mass — it can’t hold forever because there’s a natural story in writing about the downturn. We’re trying to enjoy this while we have this moment.”
The biggest pressure he feels is for the fans who have responded to the show with such intensity. “We don’t want to let those people down,” he says. “We’re going to explore some really heavy issues that affect people and we want to do it responsibly. We don’t want it to be bulls–t television. We don’t want it to be a movie of the week. We don’t want Jack’s death to turn into a soap opera.”
And then there’s the matter of that Emmy award for Sterling K. Brown (Randall). Fogelman compares him to Steve Carell, who he worked with on “Crazy Stupid Love” for the way he values what’s important — his family above all else. “He’s at the top of his profession at the exact same time as he’s the best actor working out there right now,” says Fogelman. “It’s happening to the right guy.”
Plus, he jokes, he likes to tease Brown about his potential for another career: “I think he could be President,” says Fogelman, “not because of his political beliefs but because he is a sponge of information.” Brown often visits the writers room, he reports — not to pitch ideas, but simply to absorb their craft. “He doesn’t want anything out of it — he just likes learning about things.”