One of the fall TV season’s better-kept secrets is out.
NBC’s This Is Us made its debut on Tuesday night, after a summer of generating significant buzz by way of its well-viewed, butt-baring, heart-tugging trailer. In short order, we met Jack and Rebecca (played by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), happily marrieds about to welcome triplets; Kevin (Justin Hartley), a disgruntled sitcom actor, and his body issues-battling twin sister Kate (Chrissy Metz); and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who having been abandoned as a newborn on a firehouse’s doorstep, has sought out his biological father.
The opening hour milked each character’s particular life event for much emotion, tempered by some smiles (thanks, Dr. Gerald McRaney!), until the final moments revealed a twist that connected the characters, something greater than a shared birthday: Jack and Rebecca are the parents of Kevin, Kate and Randall, the latter whom they adopted after losing one of their triplets during a difficult delivery. Meaning, at least in the pilot, Jack and Rebecca’s story is separated from their others’ by 36 years.
“I wrote the pilot on spec, basically, because I knew I couldn’t quite explain verbally what it was going to be,” This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman tells TVLine. “There was actually a note at the end of the script about what the series is going to be, because I felt it important that when people read it they got it. There was a plan in motion.”
So as Season 1 moves forward, scenes will be set in 2016 and 1980… and numerous periods in between. “We kind of refer to it as ‘a dramedy version of Lost,'” Fogelman says. For example, “You’re going to get a real feeling of the evolution of a marriage” with Ventimiglia and Moore’s characters, checking in on them before the pregnancy, or with the three children living at home. (That’s why the facial hair worn by Ventimiglia during press rounds doesn’t match the 1986 scenes; only the mustache is constant.) “You might even meet them in the present day,” Fogelman suggests, “as older versions of themselves.”
Fogelman, who mined similarly twisty territory with the film Crazy, Stupid, Love, concedes that what This Is Us aims to do is “very complicated.” But the potential for payoff was too irresistible. “If it works creatively, and I think it’s going to work, it’s going to be a really, really sophisticated attempt at a dramedy.” Born of a writers room populated by “playwrights and big brained people, each one smarter than the next,” he says, “We’re really trying to do something here.”
“We’re doing something really ambitious here in a medium that doesn’t always reward it,” Fogelman adds. And until the always unpredictable ratings roll in, “We’re being rewarded it for it simply by how great NBC is treating it,” with a summer-long promotional campaign.
Interestingly, This Is Us is one of two freshman dramas — the other being Fox’s Pitch — that Fogleman has debuting this week and concealing a significant twist. So forgive him if he’s been a bit on edge these past few months, raising an eyebrow when one particular NBC promo all but spelled out Kate and Kevin’s connection to Jack. But again, this isn’t new territory for the scribe.
“Crazy, Stupid, Love kind of launched my career, and it had this huge moment that really worked for people,” he recalls. “[A twist] works when you can watch back and not just say, ‘Oh, they surprised me for the sake of surprising me.’ It’s better when you can go back and go, ‘They surprised me and it makes sense for the episode and for the series.”
Grade This Is Us in the poll below, then click through the gallery above right (or click here) to revisit the episode’s sneaky little spoilers.