You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How ‘This Is Us’ Is Taking Action for More Inclusive Storytelling

It’s just a chance encounter with a clerk in a hardware store: On Tuesday’s episode of “This Is Us,” Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — still in his 20s, recovering from his nervous breakdown, and nervously anticipating the birth of his first daughter — goes shopping for a ceiling fan for the nursery. But the conversation turns from professional advice to personal, as the clerk ends up offering Randall life-changing insight.

What makes the moment noteworthy is that the clerk is Sikh. And there’s no reference to his ethnicity. “It’s a moment of unexpected connection between two very different yet very similar men and both actors play it so beautifully,” says “This Is Us” co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger.

That casting was born from a meeting back in June with NBC’s showrunners, spearheaded by NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke and America Ferrera, who stars in and executive produces NBC’s “Superstore,” and one of the founders of Harness, an activist group launched in the wake of the election. The purpose was to encourage the network’s writers to weave characters from underrepresented communities into their storytelling.

“Storytelling is, for so many of us, a matter of protecting our communities and creating a larger understanding of who we are and grounding people’s perceptions of certain communities in basic humanity and shared experience,” says Ferrera. “It was a very empowering and positive conversation about the possibility and the potential that lies within storytelling, how storytelling narrative in our culture is absolutely a tool for creating understanding. It’s how we come to know each other in a country that is so large and where people are often very isolated from one another, and sometimes their only experience with a homeless person, or a gay person, or a black person, or an undocumented person is their exposure to them on the news or on a TV show.”

Among the speakers at the meeting were Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant and founder of Define American; Native American film producer Heather Rae; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; and Sikh activist Valarie Kaur, who’s made it her mission since Sept. 11 to advocate for better representation.

“We find ourselves in a moment when hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim-Americans are the highest they’ve been since 9/11,” says Kaur. “The stereotype of the Muslim terrorist on network news and in entertainment has helped fuel this climate.”

Aptaker and Berger say they left the meeting inspired to take action, and quickly formulated the plotline on their immensely popular hit.

“When you have that sort of platform, there’s a good sort of pressure to make the most of it, to do everything you possibly can with it,” say the producers. “And we felt that we could so easily include someone from an underrepresented group of people on our show.”

Salke reports that she had similar responses from other producers in the room, including Jason Katims (“Rise”) and Martin Gero (“Blindspot”).

The mission may have started with NBC, but it’s not ending there: With Salke’s help, Ferrera has already booked similar meetings with other networks, as well as film studios.

“I don’t want to keep them as our secret weapon,” says Salke. “They should be everywhere. We saw first-hand how it changed the narrative.”

Given television’s reach — “it’s the primary way Americans come to know one another,” says Kaur — she welcome the chance to talk directly to creators about the power literally at their fingertips. “It’s become so clear to me that telling our stories on TV and film is a civil rights priority — and also a moral imperative.”


Popular on Variety

More TV

  • The Plague Season 2 Spanish TV

    Telefonica, Atresmedia to Create Content Factory Behemoth

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — In a game-changing move for Spanish-language production Telefonica, Europe’s third biggest telco, and Atresmedia, the original co-creators of “La Casa de Papel,” are uniting to create a new joint contents production giant. Aimed at gaining more scale and uniting talent relations – writers, directors and producers – the 50/50 joint venture will [...]

  • Media Company Formed Through Merger Given

    KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Takes the Name Leonine

    The KKR-backed German media company formed through the merger of Tele München Group, Universum Film, i&u TV, and Wiedemann & Berg Film has been given the name Leonine, it was revealed Friday. Fred Kogel, CEO of Leonine, said: “When choosing the new brand as our company name, the following aspects were decisive for us: it [...]


    San Sebastian: Leticia Dolera on Canneseries Winner ‘Perfect Life’

    SAN SEBASTIAN —  “La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist”) may be the most seen of Spanish series this year. Leticia Dolera’s still-to-bow “Perfect Life,” however, is the most laureled, sweeping at April’s 2nd Canneseries TV festival both best series and best special performance for its female leads, Dolera herself, Celia Freijeiro and Aixa Villagrán, from [...]

  • Screen writer Beau WillimonMary Queen of

    Beau Willimon Re-Elected as President of Writers Guild of America East

    Beau Willimon, the playwright and showrunner who launched Netflix’s “House of Cards,” has been re-elected without opposition to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America East. Willimon also ran unopposed in 2017 to succeed Michael Winship. Kathy McGee was elected to the vice president slot over Phil Pilato. Secretary-treasurer Bob Schneider [...]

  • Dickinson First Look Teaser

    TV News: Apple Drops New 'Dickinson' Trailer With Hailee Steinfeld (Watch)

    In today’s roundup, Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson” series released a new trailer and Netflix released the trailer for the fifth season of “Peaky Blinders.” DATES The “Cash Cab” revival will come to Bravo on Oct. 7. The game show takes place inside a New York cab, where unsuspecting passengers become contestants in a game of [...]

  • Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team

    Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team for Medical Drama in Development at CBS

    CBS is developing a medical drama that hails from writer Katie Wech, Variety has learned. Currently titled “Good Sam,” the series follows a talented yet stifled surgeon who embraces her leadership role after her renowned and pompous boss falls into a coma. When he awakens and wants to resume surgery, however, it falls to her to [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content