“This Is Us” is embarking upon the second half of its fourth season, with two more seasons already guaranteed, and series creator Dan Fogelman says the plan for the overarching story “has held” ever since he pitched the show.
“For the most part I thnk we’ve really tried to stick to the plan for the overall show that was there from the beginning,” he said at the NBC Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show Saturday. “Here and there you make adjustments and brilliant writers come in with ideas and that affects the timeline.”
Fogelman noted that this show has always been about “time and memory and nostalgia” as a device to tell stories about family, and as “we wind the show down eventually…it becomes, in astrange way, the pilot before the twist of the pilot, which was just this intimate story about the family.” Those are the moments Fogelman admits he feels that is when they are “hitting our sweet spot” and that those scenes are also his “most exciting times” as a writer on the show.
“They’re sitting inside a scene that doesn’t necessarily have a big twist to it but is just great acting,” he says of the cast.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still big surprises coming in the story. In the Jan. 14 midseason premiere episode of the fourth season of “This Is Us,” entitled “Light and Shadows,” actor Sterling K. Brown admitted there was a moment when reading the script that had him screaming.
“Fogelman and our writers came up with astoryling that I think is quite compelling. It allows us to further delve into Randall’s mental health and how he takes care of himself — what’s right and what’s wrong about how he takes care of himself and how he could potentially do a better job of that,” Brown explained. “This moment happens where you’re like, ‘Oh. Oh s—, this is going to go sideways.”
That episode is one that Fogelman called “really special,” not only for the cameo appearance by John Legend, but also because it is directed by the show’s cinematographer Yasu Tanida, who has been with them for the entire run of the series. It also sets up the following episode, “A Hell of a Week: Part One,” which is the first of another trilogy set of episodes about The Big Three. This time around, the first of that three-episode series begins with Randall (Brown), who grapples with his anxiety after going to Los Angeles to visit his mother (Mandy Moore). That episode also focuses on Randall’s marriage to Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), Fogelman previewed.
“People have been really supportive to see someone who is willing to share their emotions,” Brown said of audience response to Randall’s character and the “Hashtag-black Pearsons in general. That’s what we call us.”
“That’s what YOU call us,” Watson jumped in.
Brown said one encounter that meant a lot to him was when a fan came up to him in an airport and said, “I was not as gracious when my daughter came out to me, but seeing you and Beth have that level of grace with your child let me know I could do better.” Brown realized, “‘God, if that’s not why you do it.’ It was a beautiful moment.”
Brown added that it’s also nice to “show a family that can make it, and those marriage goals — those relationship goals — feel even more earned” after seeing them struggle.
“My wife [actor Ryan Michelle Bathe] said, ‘If [‘Empire’s’] Cookie and Lucious can make it…'” he laughed.
Going forward in the season, college applications will be a big part of the storyline for Brown and Watson’s onscreen eldest daughter Deja (Lyric Ross), as well as her new boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk). Additionally, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan) drifting apart will be addressed.
“It was always a part of their story we wanted to explore beyond the reasons of just getting ripped, but secrets and schedules and the strains that can put on the marriage,” Fogelman said, noting that the story was originally going to be a fifth season arc but they pushed it up.
Sullivan noted that Toby becoming a gym rat in Season 4 mirrors Randall’s story dealing with his anxiety in one key way: “It ties into the way we take care of ourselves and the way we neglect ourselves. Even things that are perceived to be healthy can be detrimental if they’re not approached with consciousness,” he explained.
“This Is Us” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.