The Script That Clicked

Since its debut on NBC, This Is Us has had viewers laughing, crying and craving more. Fortunately, it’s already been renewed for two more seasons.

Mark Morrison
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer

“I’m never going to write a superhero movie,” confesses Dan Fogelman, sitting on the couch in his expansive office on the Paramount lot.

Against a backdrop of framed posters and memorabilia from his movies (Cars, Tangled, Danny Collins and Crazy, Stupid, Love) and past TV series (The Neighbors, Galavant), he says: “It’s just not in my wheelhouse. I’m never going to write something really dark and messed up, because it’s not my point of view.

"So if I’m going to use whatever currency I have right now, I’m going to make people laugh and hit them with something emotional — but hopefully not manipulative. That’s what I want to do until they tell me I’m not allowed to do that anymore.”

That day isn’t likely to come anytime soon. Fifteen years into an already enviable career, this mild-mannered mensch from small-town New Jersey is having a big moment.

His high-concept family drama, This Is Us — which chronicles the lives of Jack and Rebecca Pearson, a loving Pittsburgh couple, and their three kids over the course of several decades — was the year’s number-one new series among adults 18 to 49. What’s more, by its March 14 season finale, it was delivering the largest overall viewer total among all first-year shows.

On top of that, it is NBC’s first new series in nine years (since Heroes) to win a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama. In February, Fogelman — who created the show and executive-produces it with John Requa, Glenn Ficarra, Ken Olin, Don Todd, Charlie Gogolak and Jess Rosenthal — took home a 2017 Humanitas Prize, which celebrates writing that is uplifting and life-affirming.

On June 8, the show will receive a Television Academy Honor, given to programs that create and advance social change.

But beyond its robust ratings and mounting kudos, This Is Us has become something of a cultural phenomenon. While Fogelman (who lived in Pittsburgh until he was nine) jokingly describes it as  Lost meets The Waltons,“ there has really never been a show quite like it. Though Parenthood fans may feel it fills a void left by the cancellation of their favorite family drama last year, This Is Us is a different animal.

Thanks to strategic time jumps that allow the storytelling to span a 45-year continuum (1972 to 2017), it seamlessly juxtaposes passages in the characters’ lives as if they existed simultaneously. Well-placed reveals introduce slice-of-life twists that prove all the more astonishing because we never see them coming.

The show’s character-driven storytelling — about the interconnectedness of people as they cope with issues of love and loss, race and class, body image and sexuality, high hopes and broken dreams — is so human and relatable, viewers can’t help but think, “Holy crap, this is us.”

Which is why, over the course of 18 episodes, the series morphed from a runaway hit into a primetime event, a cathartic weekly forum that has women obsessed, grown men sobbing and millennials — the most tech-reliant generation ever — tuning in for same-day viewing.

Heartfelt yet often hilarious, This Is Us is something of a small miracle — an answered prayer for NBC, but also for broadcast television itself. It proves that a quality program can still break new ground on a major network without having to be dark and disturbing like so many cable shows that have ruled the airwaves since The Sopranos won its first Emmy in 1999.

In fact, the last time the procedural-heavy broadcast networks won a single Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series was 2011, for the second season of CBS’s The Good Wife. That could change this year.

It doesn’t hurt that This Is Us has a dream cast of actors who are coming into their own. “My favorite part about the show is how unexpected they can be,” Fogelman says of his ensemble. “That’s the most exciting part of writing for them — letting them surprise you.”

One season in, the show has already changed the trajectory of these actors’ careers. (In an unusual show of faith, NBC rewarded them in January by renewing the show for two more seasons.)

After successful runs on Gilmore Girls and Heroes, Milo Ventimiglia is the unofficial cast captain, numero uno on the call sheet for the first time. He brings unforeseen gravitas to Jack, the working stiff who married up and — spoiler alert — died young (his scenes are all set in the past).

Mandy Moore became a pop princess at 14, later branching out into films like The Princess Diaries and A Walk to Remember. She has shown her mettle as Rebecca, the reluctant matriarch who’s seen at ages ranging from 22 to 66.

Justin Hartley had played a string of TV superheroes and soap studs, but as the Pearsons’ actor-son, Kevin, he gets to reveal unexpected depths beneath those chiseled features. Relative newcomer Chrissy Metz, who was alternately working as a talent agent and collecting unemployment before landing the role of plus-size daughter Kate, has become an endearing role model for anyone who looks different.

And Sterling K. Brown — who won a 2016 Emmy for his performance as Christopher Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story just two nights before This Is Us premiered — is a revelation as Randall. The Pearsons’ adopted son is a fish out of water in his own family; he loves his white parents but fears he’s missed something as a black man in America.

Meanwhile, the three other actors who round out the cast — Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth, Randall’s no-nonsense wife; Ron Cephas Jones as William, Randall’s biological dad; and Chris Sullivan as Toby, Kate’s beefy boyfriend — are all experienced stage actors.

Says Jones, the ensemble’s velvet-voiced veteran: “It’s the first time people recognize me when I’m walking down the streets of L.A. I couldn’t fathom that ever happening. It’s been kind of strange.”

It’s also been kind of poignant at times. “I can’t go anywhere without somebody saying something,” Metz says. “A woman told me that the show has created a dialogue between her and her daughter, who never spoke about her weight, and she started crying and I started crying. Others say, ‘Can I just hug you?’ It’s about so much more than just acting.”

And, according to Sullivan, the show’s fans aren’t just touchy-feely types: “I was wearing my This Is Us hooded sweatshirt the other morning, and a giant trucker — six feet tall with 200 pounds of neck tattoos — carrying a load of boxes into a shop, said, ‘Oh man, I saw your sweatshirt and I’m like, I gotta get one of those. And then I realized it’s you, man. I love your show.’”

Originally, Fogelman saw This Is Us as a movie. He’d just directed his first film, Danny Collins, and exited a deal at ABC Studios (where he’d created the short-lived sitcoms Galavant and The Neighbors) to sign with Fox Studios. At the time, he was consumed with a film idea about a family, “and there was going to be a reveal at the end that they were octuplets born in the late ’70s or early ’80s.”

After writing 70 or 80 pages, though, “It wasn’t feeling like a movie.” So he did something he’d never done before: he dropped the project. But his mind kept returning to those abandoned characters. And he realized that if he pared back the story and cut a few roles, he might have a TV show.

“The reason I was struggling with [the film] wasn’t the plot; it was about these characters and how I didn’t want to ‘beginning-middle- and-end’ them. I wanted to do this continuous story — which felt very much like the theme of the show.”

Within days, Fogelman had a 50-page pilot script, which he showed to executives at Fox. “It was called 36 because the three siblings were turning 36 on the day the pilot takes place,” remembers Gary Newman, co-chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group with Dana Walden. “The studio read it and just loved it, and they sent it on to the Fox network, who also loved it — but we made what was a hard decision.

“We really felt it was in the spirit of shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood — a rich, textured, family drama — and we felt that NBC in particular would be a great home for it.” NBC also had the Olympics and wanted to use The Voice to launch another show. “Those were persuasive things to us and to Dan.”

It was September 2015, early for pilot season, which meant Fogelman’s already-completed script was just about the only game in town. Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, recalls hearing about it first from trusted friends at Fox, where she’d worked for 10 years prior to moving to NBCUniversal. Walden called to say they had something special for her to read.

“I had a pretty strong idea that it would be a great script,” Salke recalls. “What I didn’t know was that it was going to have this incredibly emotional pull. It was different than just [reading] absorbing creative material. It took it to this other level. Everyone [on my team] was emailing each other [that night]. That doesn’t happen. There was this collective fervor that we [had] to have this project.”

Salke says she’s only witnessed this kind of passion for pilot scripts twice before — with Glee and Modern Family. And she knew NBC needed a big hit. The network was on the comeback trail with The Blacklist and Dick Wolf’s Chicago-based procedurals. “But we needed a big statement show,” she says, “something that would break through culturally.”

By then, Fogelman had re-teamed with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the duo who directed Crazy, Stupid, Love. They also had a deal at Fox. Together, they met with Salke, who agreed to let them make the pilot they wanted. Because they already had a script, actors were willing to audition. And because it was still early, they were able to snag their first choices.

“I hadn’t written it for anyone,” Fogelman says, though having worked with Moore on Disney’s 2010 animated hit, Tangled, he says she was “one person I brought up very quickly. Mandy is the most winning human being in the world, but she’s hard-core in this show.

John and Glenn had Sterling in their film with Tina Fey [Whiskey Tango Foxtrot] and said he’d make a great Randall. He’s such a powerhouse dramatic actor, but he’s capable of nailing a monster joke.

Chris Sullivan is a heavy-duty serious actor who just happens to be the funniest guy in the world. Every single cast member was kind of undeniable in audition.”

“We had the pick of the litter,” Ficarra recalls. He knew their luck had paid off when the show started airing last September, and his parents and their friends couldn’t stop talking about it.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is bigger than I’m used to.’” But he didn’t realize how much bigger it was until “Milo shaved off his mustache [for the season finale] and my entire news feed was filled with him. And I thought, ‘Well, we’re a hit.’”

For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the latest emmy magazine, on newsstands May 30

Go behind the scenes of emmy ’s cover shoot with the cast of This Is Us. Visit TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017