'This Is Us' already had its new season mapped out. But 2020 had other plans
When "This Is Us," NBC's time-shifting, twist-savvy family drama, wrapped production on its fourth season in mid-March, the show's writers already had planned and outlined the first six episodes of the fifth season before beginning their hiatus.
Then 2020 delivered some twists of its own: the COVID-19 pandemic and a stunning wave of protests over racial injustice across the country — and beyond.
Then the rejiggering began.
"It almost felt irresponsible to not take on the moment," creator Dan Fogelman told The Los Angeles Times.
Now, in a fall broadcast season that has been severely limited by the pandemic — postponing production start dates for some shows and bumping off others altogether — "This Is Us" is the first returning drama to debut new episodes. Beginning with Tuesday's two-hour Season 5 premiere, the series is weaving both the coronavirus outbreak and protests over racial injustice into the season's narrative.
Fogelman wrote the premiere episodes alongside Kay Oyegun, who has worked on the series since it launched, and Jake Schnesel. There were long discussions in the writers room about whether they should incorporate the events at all.
"Early on, when we began to have these conversations, so much was happening at such an intense level," Oyegun said. "I know that I was a very vocal advocate of not touching what we had already laid out. I was sending Dan emails after the room was done being like, 'I don't know about this.' But those were the early conversations: how to do it, how to do it with honesty, how to do it through the point of view of the characters onscreen, as opposed to the world at large."
Fogelman and Oyegun both described the process of reconfiguring the episodes as an evolving challenge, one that involved numerous rewrites to the series' present-day story lines in response to the spring's two seismic shocks.
"We had made the decision collectively to allow the world of COVID into our show," Fogelman said. Then the protests "forced us to kind of reconvene, as a group, and say: 'How can we not address this on the show while we're addressing COVID? How can we still address COVID without addressing this?' There were a million things. That was an intense period in our virtual writers room, where we were kind of talking things through and figuring things out and messing up. And it wasn't always comfortable."
Last season ended with a tense exchange between brothers Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley), with both saying hurtful things to each other during a disagreement over how to handle the health of their mom, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), as she battles the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
The rift will be a through line this season, Fogelman said. The new season kicks off with roughly the same time structure as seasons past: The present-day story line picks up about September and catches viewers up on what the characters have been up to since the events of the finale, including the incorporation of the real-world events that have transpired in the interim.
"The opening 15 minutes of the show take us through that time," Fogelman said.
He added that the nature of our current way of life — hunkering down with a small group of family or friends — was how the story lines were shaping up already, so mask-wearing will only happen where it makes sense — as when Kevin is walking down the street and a fan wants an autograph.
The recent protests and conversations about race felt natural to include, Oyegun said, because the show already has spent time tackling race and identity through Randall, an adopted Black member of a white family.
"For us, it felt like such a natural exploration, a natural thing to do, because it's already baked into our DNA," she said. "It never felt false or like a misstep. ... In the room, we had very candid conversations, very emotional conversations, very honest conversations — for a lot of us, bringing those conversations into the world of the story. Because there's no point of asking it to ourselves if our characters can't ask it so we can find answers through them."
A trailer for the fifth season included a scene of Randall and his family watching the protests on TV.
"One of the things I said to Dan when we first got these episodes was it's like they eavesdropped on people's lives," Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Beth Pearson, said in a video call with reporters. "Everybody in America — it's like they had an ear to their door. So much of it was just things I had lived or I know people had lived. As Black as Randall and Beth are, they are not experts on how to metabolize all that tragedy, so I think there's a way they deal with it, with their kids, that's honest."
"It's such a unique perspective for someone like Randall, who is always sort of questioning his identity as it is but never wavering from the fact that he knows that he is Black," Brown said on the same call. "In general, conversations regarding race happen much more frequently in households of people of color than they do for mainstream white families because they are just not something that's necessarily in the forefront of the consciousness."
Shooting on a new season of the NBC drama typically begins in July, but consideration for how to return safely to set amid an active health crisis pushed the start date to the end of September. Strict guidelines, including regular testing, mask-wearing and social distancing, were followed on set.
To achieve the quick turnaround, Fogelman said the cast and crew had to shoot on weekends, while the show's editors have worked around the clock to finalize the episode once production wrapped.
"It's been terrible," Fogelman said jokingly. "I can now safely say we did it, and we will get the episode on TV as planned. But we were right up to the gun and taking a gamble if we hadn't been able to finish the episode in time. It's been kind of five times faster a turnaround than I've ever had on my fastest television episode ever."
The series premiere date was originally scheduled for Nov. 11, the week after the presidential election, but Fogelman lobbied network executives to move up the date. "We felt it was important, if we are going to be dealing with a lot of events (on the show), to precede the thing that's coming on that Tuesday rather than kind of come after it," he said.
But Fogelman stressed that, despite the politically charged nature of both the pandemic and the recent protests, the series will not delve into the upcoming election.
"We're not referencing the election," he said, noting that many viewers will already have had plenty of the campaign play out on their TV screens. "I don't think our show is the forum for it."
After a small raft of pandemic-set limited series, such as Netflix's "Social Distance" and Freeform's "Love in the Time of Corona," attempted to chronicle life in this period, some of TV's returning favorites are finding ways to incorporate the pandemic, as well as the protests, into their seasons. "This Is Us" joins NBC's "Superstore" and ABC's "The Conners," "black-ish" and "Grey's Anatomy," as one of the first to do so.
And it won't be fleeting.
"We're not just dealing with it in the first two episodes and then never mentioning it, having the characters go back to their normal lives as if this didn't exist," he said. "It's fair to say that the first two episodes really dive into it more than future things consistently. Because we can't make a TV show where we talk about COVID forever. The situations that have built up during our off-season continue onward, there are story lines and scenes greatly affected by it moving forward, but it's not a fog of COVID story lines."
But Fogelman doesn't foresee the pandemic — and the uncertainty of when it will subside — changing the endgame he's long had planned for the Pearsons.
"I'm an optimist, and I believe we're going to find our footing at some point," Fogelman said. "And we've got quite a while until Season 6, and that makes my brain explode. But I think that our plan for the show remains the same."