Sometimes a piece of pop culture resonates so strongly with the prevailing American mood that it seems like nothing short of kismet. In 2016, the complex, generation-hopping tale of the Pearson family became a bonafide cultural phenomenon and seemed to revitalize the viability of network dramas—at least at NBC. Behind-the-scenes, the low-key family dramedy with no huge stars or sexy hooks began its winding journey to success after being rescued from the back of a filing cabinet. This is the story of “This Is Us.”
By the spring of 2015, series creator Dan Fogelman had built up a reputation as a reliable Hollywood scribe, penning big-screen rom-coms like “Crazy Stupid Love” and animated smash hits “Cars” and “Tangled.” But his multiplex success did not fully translate to his three years as a showrunner at ABC Studios. Two high-concept and underperforming series—sci-fi family satire “The Neighbors” and musical fantasy-comedy “Galavant”—were canceled after two-season runs. Despite this, 20th Century Fox TV considered him a versatile and bankable enough talent to sign him to an eight-figure development deal.
It was in this new context, with pressure to produce promising content, that Fogelman dusted off an unfinished 80-page feature film script he’d written about the disparate lives of a large group of siblings (they have been alternately reported as sextuplets and octuplets) entitled “36”. The bones of the “This Is Us” pilot were there: events followed seemingly unconnected adult characters who happen to share a birthday, building up to a time-jump parentage reveal in the third act. As Fogelman told Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva, at the time he wasn’t struck by any particularly grand swell of inspiration besides taking note of the varying lives of his peers.
“I was in my late 30s at the time—about 38—and I was struck by how wildly different the lives of my peers could be, even though we were all the same age. I had friends who were married, some single. Some had preteen children, others none. Some were satisfied in their careers, others less so. Some had experienced great loss—of parents, of friends—others hadn’t even lost a grandparent. And I thought, I’m going to write something about all these people, all exactly the same age and born on the same day.”
“I thought, I’m going to write something about all these people, all exactly the same age and born on the same day.”
Even though he had found the ideas and characters compelling, Fogelman had been unable to envision or complete “36” as a complete film script. "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," Fogelman told Emmy Magazine. "I wanted to do this continuous story.” For one of the only times in his life, unable and uninterested in articulating an ending, he filed it away. Or, as he more bluntly phrased the decision to the Hollywood Reporter, he couldn’t answer this question: “What’s the fucking point of this?” However, once he reconsidered his story instead for the small screen, a crucial change clicked into place: what if his cute Shyamalanian twist could instead function as a series starting point and watercooler pilot hook?
“I just decided to open [the “36” draft] back up, lose some characters, and try thinking of it as a TV series instead of a film,” Fogelman told Deadline. “And suddenly I was excited to write it again, not just because it could be shorter and was almost done—though that was enticing too—but because suddenly I didn’t need an ending. The ending was just a beginning, and the thing I liked most about the script—the characters—they could keep evolving over many, many stories.”
With this new perspective and a renewed verve, Fogelman set about sloughing off his draft’s more rickety elements. For starters, the Pearson clan had to be brought down to a more manageable size. Initially there was to be another sister living in London and navigating a broken marriage, whose adoptive English accent would be another audience misdirect. She did not survive the cut, and neither did a “hotshot movie-star brother” character. After also cutting out some too-hot-for-broadcast four-letter words and tightening it down to hour-long drama size, Fogelman submitted his revised teleplay to 20th Television.
Creative affairs president Jonnie Davis responded to the pilot’s effortless tonal melding of comedy and tear-jerking drama. The power of that synthesis is something Fogelman was cognizant of, later telling NPR, “There is a form of storytelling—a tone—that lives in between the laugh and the [heavy] emotion. If you hit that tone right, it can be everything.” In spite of how promising studio heads found the script, they were uncertain that the project would flourish if they kept it in-house and aired it on Fox.
From its outset, “This Is Us” benefited from benevolent and strategic top-down stewardship. Rather than keeping the project under the Fox umbrella by airing it on their own network, Fox Television Group sought out a landing spot where it had the best chance to fit into a programming lineup and launch with as many viewers as possible. While doing right by its house talent was certainly a factor in relocating, Fox stood to reap back-end revenues from streaming sales, foreign broadcast sales, and syndication rights—none of which would be lucrative without a successful first run. As co-chairman Gary Newman later told an audience at the 2017 Television Critics Association press tour, NBC was poised to offer “This Is Us” an airtime that could benefit from “The Voice” and the 2016 Summer Olympics as high-powered lead-ins. No other network could offer such a formidable runway.
Nor did the tone and subject matter of an ensemble family dramedy seem like an obvious fit for the Fox network, whose big hits historically tended toward sexier premises like “24” or “Prison Break.” Of the projects that Fogelman was behind at the time, “Pitch”—an hour-long drama about major-league baseball’s first female pitcher—had a more clear and succinct hook, and could slot in behind the fall World Series broadcast. NBC, on the other hand, had recently been a haven for critically-adored melodramas similar in spirit to “This Is Us,” like the Jason Katims–helmed “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights”. While neither show commanded huge ratings, NBC demonstrated unusually strong commitment to their success. “Parenthood” never drew a bigger audience than its pilot episode, and yet it ran through six seasons. NBC kept the lights on at “Friday Night Lights” by striking an unprecedented cost-sharing and staggered distribution partnership with DirecTV through five seasons, despite being the network’s least-watched program. With that track record, the “This Is Us” team could expect patient bosses if they weren’t a hit right away.
“We have made a commitment to our writers at our studio that we’re going to give them the greatest chance to succeed,” Newman later told the TCA audience. “If NBC responded to [the pilot script] the way we did, we thought it would probably be a good home for it.”
For her part, NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke did: "You'd have to be in a coma to not respond to this show," she told THR.
In order to assemble a dependable crew and creative team, Dan Fogelman started by sticking to experienced producers and directors who could ably empathize with actors handling his brand of material. Few people could be better primed for the task of co-executive producer than Ken Olin. The TV industry veteran and his wife, Emmy-winning actor Patricia Wettig, had just sold their home in Los Angeles and moved to New York City, where Olin resolved to, in his aging 60-something years, only take work if he truly loved the material. When he was contacted to executive produce “This Is Us,” his impression of the pilot script was so strong that he and Wettig picked up and moved back westward to get onboard. Fogelman knew Olin could draw from his ample experience on both sides of the camera of similar TV dramas. Not only had he directed and/or produced “Brothers & Sisters” and “thirtysomething”—both, like “This Is Us”, shows featuring a half-dozen or so young adults navigating contemporary life—he was a principal cast member as well. Echoes of his prior work were there, but this job wouldn’t simply be a rehash of past successes. “What distinguishes the style of ‘This is Us’ from any other show I’ve done is to have that sense of discovery,” Olin told GoldDerby after the show’s successful first season. “It isn’t all planned any more than life is. It isn’t all contrived. For me, a lot of that sense of discovery is with the actors.” For their part, the cast and crew concurred. Milo Ventimiglia described Olin’s style to the Los Angeles Times as composing an “emotional symphony” drawn from a place that actors themselves can feel, and Fogelman praised him as a “lovable neurotic” whose experienced confidence made him an open and willing collaborator.
“The best way to cut schmaltz is with a laugh, and that's what our show does. It also resets the audience, prepares them for the next cry moment.”
A show will often sink or swim based on the impact of its pilot episode. As the audience’s first exposure to a show’s characters and milieu, it establishes the overall tone and style for the series going forward. Accomplishing this with Fogelman’s busy, twisty, revelatory script would be a big ask for any director to take on. He therefore turned to a writer-director duo that he knew he could trust to make his material resonate. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra had previously directed Fogelman’s sctructurally complicated “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” screenplay, a critical and financial smash which at the time was one of Fogelman’s industry calling-cards. Fogelman brought the former Pratt classmates onboard to temper the script’s emotional highs and lows and “rein in the schmaltz,” according to Requa and Ficcara in DGA Quarterly. "The best way to cut schmaltz is with a laugh, and that's what our show does," Requa explained. "It also resets the audience, prepares them for the next cry moment." The creative unit opted for an unobtrusive, restrained approach to both performances and visual style—unshowy handheld camerawork, a muted color palette, and naturalistic lighting—that would lend the show a credible lived-in feel. "We're really trying to keep the Hollywood moves and equipment down and let the characters and the writing tell the story," Requa said. "We try to be more voyeuristic. We wanted the audience to feel like they're peeking in on these relationships."
To expand the odyssey of those multigenerational, multiracial relationships out from the seed of his pilot, Fogelman sought out a writers’ room diverse in its members’ personal and professional experiences. Since his various duties as showrunner would necessarily keep him away from parts of the writing process, he would need people to draw inspiration from places he couldn’t. The 10 writers who came together formed a representative cross-sampling—different in age, gender, body type, and race—that was reflective of the characters whose stories they shaped. Seasoned TV scribes like Tyler Bensinger (“The Good Wife,” “Parenthood”) shared the room with plucky upstarts like Jas Waters. One of three black writers on staff, Waters had never been in a writers’ room before when she read the pilot and strongly identified with Kate’s plight, having recently lost over 100 pounds herself. “I remember that girl. I’m still that girl,” Waters told the Hollywood Reporter. After much praying, pitching, and agent-prodding, Waters landed the gig. Waters—along with Kay Oyegun, and Shukree Hassan Tilghman—had a pronounced voice when the show addressed issues of race. This was a crucial element in fostering a creative environment where, as writer-producer Isaac Uptaker told THR, “[they could] have those kinds of conversations—the kinds you don't have permission to have in your daily life."
Above all else, “This Is Us” is about one thing: people. Without actors to credibly inhabit the Pierson characters and make them feel like everyday people, the project would be in peril. As a low-key ensemble dramedy without any typical network TV hooks—cops, lawyers, doctors—there wouldn’t be many bells and whistles to drown out false notes. Luckily, pilot directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra brought along two trusted, highly-capable casting directors in Tiffany Little Canfield (who had cast their films “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and “Focus”) and Telsey and Company head Bernard Telsey.
“When I read [the pilot script], I really felt I’ve never read anything like this,” Canfield told Deadline in an interview. “It was so exciting because there were so many twists and turns in the pilot that you didn’t anticipate, and yet it still was filled with heart. I was really drawn to the cleverness, and how the relationships felt so real”
Multiple factors made this job a more difficult one than most, particularly past the pilot episode when the series delves into the Pearsons as kids and teenagers. In her initial conversations with Dan Fogelman, Canfield recalled going over characters’ necessary personality and physical traits, such as Kevin’s fitness and Kate’s weight. But they were able to bypass two larger problems that typically come up in TV development: actors of a certain stature don’t want to actually audition, and executives second-guess producers’ first choices. Since pre-production was taking place outside of the frenzy of pilot season, Fogelman and Canfield had the luxury of bringing every actor (save for Gerald McCraney) in to audition and do chemistry reads, no matter their clout. Speaking during a 2017 Emmy season SAG-AFTRA panel, Canfield identified this as her favorite element of the show’s casting process and attributes to it the show’s “magic.”
“I feel like the chemistry is real because we got to chemistry read people. I think agents are very much in the business of protecting their actors from auditioning, but what they forget is that auditioning is a two-way street: You’re interviewing the show, too. Do you want to work with this director? We’ve seen what’s happened to actors who are on shows they don’t love.”
Fogelman told Backstage that this process also led to his being able to cast all of his first choices, free from common complications in which “you really want somebody that you can get, but then it doesn’t feel right. Or, you want somebody and the network or studio doesn’t want them—or you want someone and they don’t want to do it. We were lucky on a lot of fronts.”
Here’s how that luck came together, Pearson by Pearson.
In perhaps the biggest physical deviation from the page, Jack Pearson was initially supposed to be a doughy, white-collar everyman. But the chiseled charms of Milo Ventimiglia, and the strength of his audition, caused Fogelman to recalibrate his idea for the character’s interior life and trajectory.
“Milo [Ventimiglia] came in off his motorcycle with his beard and his long hair, just looking like the coolest, handsomest guy in the world.”
“Milo came in off his motorcycle with his beard and his long hair, just looking like the coolest, handsomest guy in the world,” Fogelman told Backstage. “And it was a complete surprise that I said, ‘Oh, this guy is the patriarch of this family.’ It was very clear, instantly, to us.” Fogelman saw Jack anew as “very simple but not stupid—simple in terms of his desires and the way he loves things and how hard he loves things.”
Ventimiglia quickly cottoned to Jack and described getting into character as “an easy process.” The “Heroes” and “Gilmore Girls” heartthrob told Deadline that he drew on memories of his own father to instead imagine Jack as a big-hearted family man, enabling him to easily inhabit Jack’s intense dedication and flannel-and-jeans wardrobe.
“I saw the same heart in Jack that was in my father. He was a man who was passionate about his family, wanting to give to them, not just roof and clothes, but give them lessons to be learned for our success.”
After striking out in a string of failed pilot seasons, actor and former teen pop idol Mandy Moore felt uncertain about entering into contention for Rebecca, but an “undeniable” script pushed her forward. “[The writing] it felt so nuanced and so different from anything I have ever read for network television,” Moore told the Playlist. She had a familiarity with and fondness for Fogelman’s work (as the writer of “Tangled,” in which she starred) and came away from her first audition feeling “OK”—better than her self-critical norm. Then, because she auditioned early in the casting process, she heard nothing for a month. Her agents told her that "[the casting team] really likes you, but they are going to New York and reading a bunch of girls out there." Thankfully, sparks flew at her callback read with Ventimiglia, at which point the field had winnowed down to three actors each for Jack and Rebecca. It was then that she displayed “serious chops,” Fogelman told Backstage, in delivering Episode 2’s stern, exasperated monologue in which Rebecca chastises Jack’s drinking.
“I just remember it being really lovely and easy. Those situations are weird. You’re in a room, and I knew they already loved this guy [for the role], so you’re like, ‘OK, this is a different dynamic,’” Moore told Glamour. It’s weird to have to jump in to being married with somebody, but it was really easy. It was just right on the surface, and we didn’t have to dig too deep [to find that admiration for each other].”
Sterling K. Brown had been a theater actor in New York for over 15 years, before ascending to the A-list with his Emmy-winning role on “The People Versus O.J. Simpson”. However, when Brown was first presented with the role of Randall Pearson, that series was still filming. Canfield was familiar with Brown and thought highly of him, having fought for him to get a small part in Requa and Ficarra’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” According to Brown’s recollection, he’d previously met the pilot directors while doing a play at New York’s Public Theater. Along with Canfield, the pair pressed Fogelman to consider Brown, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, considered Fogelman’s script “nuanced and heartwarming and funny and just beautiful.” After an amicable first meeting with Fogelman, Brown had to squeeze in audition prep between takes of “The People Versus O.J. Simpson.”
“We were in the courtroom doing closing arguments and things like that for ‘People v. O.J.’ and in between time I was working on my lines for ‘This Is Us’ to do the best I could to smash this audition,” Brown continued telling the Times.
Since 20th Television was also behind “O.J.”, execs were already familiar with the rare talent they had with Brown; they needed no further convincing, and Brown sailed through the audition process. His success was especially gratifying for Canfield, who told Deadline “For a casting director [...] the actor that you have loved for decades getting their shot, and then not only taking it, but killing it, as Sterling does each and every week— it just is why we’re in the business.”
When his agent passed along the then-titled “Untitled Dan Fogelman Project,” Justin Hartley initially thought he was being asked to look at “Pitch.” Upon reading the pilot, Hartley told Harpers Bazaar that he responded to “how the characters are so fleshed out” and the personal relatability of Kevin. Being an actor naturally informed playing an actor, specifically Kevin’s reluctance to voice challenges or concerns so as to not be seen as an ingrate while having such a sought-after job. Convinced he had a “special take” on Kevin and his searching nature, Hartley auditioned with his pilot episode monologue about a generation of dreams perishing in Challenger explosion. Although the piece is subdued and ennui-laden, Hartley mined it for humor, “[making Fogelman] laugh and left the room feeling good with what [he] did.”
Chrissy Metz was the final Pearson family member to enter the fold. The character of Kate was especially close to Fogelman’s heart, as she was based loosely on his sister Deborah’s struggles with weight loss. Casting for the role may have required tact, but Canfield viewed it as an opportunity.
“I get that maybe culturally, it’s viewed as something that should be handled sensitively,” Canfield told Deadline. “I really think that when an actor who is heavyset reads a breakdown that says the character is heavyset, they are thrilled. Because the issue isn’t their heaviness—it’s a lack of opportunity for heavy actors.”
After reading the script, Metz was grateful both for the opportunity and for the kind of representation that she hadn’t seen credibly rendered on television before. “I desperately wanted an audition and begged my agent for the opportunity to read for casting,” Metz told Deadline. “This was a role that finally broke down the real issues behind weight; inadequacy, codependent relationships and living in the shadows.”
At the time of her first audition in 2015, Metz had $0.81 in her bank account, subsisted on dollar-store ramen noodles, and the highest profile credit to her name was “The Fat Lady” on “American Horror Story: Freak Show”. She would be a tougher sell than some of her costars, who had all been locked in while she waited in limbo. The part came down to Metz and another similarly green actor whose body type, according to NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke to the Hollywood Reporter, was that of a sort of “Hollywood overweight person”. The show stood at a forked path regarding authenticity and representation—two ideals it would pride itself on embodying. They picked Metz, and with that, a star was born.
The charmed casting process endowed Fogelman’s team with actors they were confident could play well together onscreen. The question of whether they would play while offscreen started from the top down with Fogelman, who told Backstage, “We have what you would call kind of a ‘no asshole’ policy, where it’s genuinely a warm environment. We have a lot of really good people working really hard on something they like.” Actors describe each other with an abundance of effusive affection. Fellow cast members are by turns “amazing,” “the kindest spirit you will ever meet,” or “lovelier than you could possibly imagine.” On the Paramount lot, Fogelman screens upcoming episodes for the cast from his office, and they “don’t really sit and watch and judge their own performance. They’re always raving about the best scenes of the other actors,” he told Backstage. “They genuinely support each other in a really cool way. And it’s not B.S.”
There were surprising early indications that NBC had an unlikely megahit on its hands. Trailers for new series aren’t often viral media in and of themselves, but the May 2016 trailer for “This Is Us” proved an exception. The 2.5-minute spot quickly racked up tens of millions of combined views on Facebook and YouTube, eventually outpacing the trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” What could account for such unprecedented fervor? Graceful editing, emotive music, and recognizable stars? Sure, but it was mostly Ventimiglia’s butt, which inspired a fervor rarely seen for a single televised derrière. As Fogelman initially conceived Jack, the shot of his flabby backside was actually meant to be a humanizing laugh-line “in the way that a shot of my own butt would be funny,” Fogelman joked to the Hollywood Reporter. But instead, as costar Mandy Moore told Vulture, millions swooned and “we've all been upstaged by the derriére. And I'm totally fine with it. It's a really good butt.”
The actual September 2016 premiere delivered mightily on the trailer’s promise, drawing a same-day viewership of 10 million (14.6 million with added DVR viewership) and the most social media chatter of any fall premiere. NBC picked it up for a full season the following day, and viewership numbers steadily grew throughout the first season. Fox Television Group co-chief exec Dana Walden pointed to the show’s resilience as evidence of its gripping effect on audiences. “It’s already bucking the trend [of viewership drop-off],” Walden told the New York Times, ”It has weathered an incredibly difficult fall in the TV business, with the election, presidential debates, a wildly entertaining World Series and a holiday break.” After the first season wrapped, “This Is Us” stood as the fall season’s most-watched new series and first overall in the coveted 18-to-49 viewer demo. The cast reaped the rewards of this popularity as well, reportedly nabbing $250,000 bonuses each.
“I don’t know whether ‘This Is Us’ would have been the same kind of success at a time when people felt safer. I think there’s a great need for a humanist sensibility and a voice for hope.”
Critical reception proved largely positive, with many seeing it as a welcome counterpoint to the dark, gritty tone of many popular shows and a cathartic feel-good salve to a nation rocked by political turmoil. On this point, Olin acknowledged that the show likely benefited from fortuitous cultural timing, telling People, “I don’t know whether ‘This Is Us’ would have been the same kind of success at a time when people felt safer. I think there’s a great need for a humanist sensibility and a voice for hope.” Conversely, detractors dinged it as manipulative and inauthentic “tragedy porn” in an already tragic world (“ ‘This Is Us’ Is the ‘American Horror Story’ of Feeling Stuff,” declared Vox). Overwhelming success also invited imitators that sought to ape the show’s basic conceit of an emotional interconnectedness. ABC’S “A Million Little Pieces” stands as the most successful of these also-rans (its creators acknowledge but push back against the comparison), though it’s critical and ratings successes are comparatively modest. On the awards circuit, the first season of “This Is Us” garnered recognition from the Golden Globes, the Primetime Emmys (Brown and Gerald McCraney took home statues for their performances), the Peabody Awards, the Television Critics Association, and the Writers and Screen Actors Guilds.
And atop the multitude of factors that made the show a cultural phenomenon, there may have been a sprinkling of something ephemeral: “Fogeldust.” Producer and Fogelman collaborator Kevin Falls coined the term to describe in his friend’s work the twists, monologues, and “emotional gut punches that T-bone an audience member in the best possible way.” From the time that first trailer dropped, the whole country inhaled a deep breath of the stuff.
For the most part, America has stuck with the Pearson clan through their numerous trials and tribulations. If they're so inclined, they can do so for a good while longer. Last spring NBC gave its flagship show a rare three-season renewal—good for six full seasons. Although viewership numbers since that renewal have faltered a notable amount, it remains the crown jewel of NBC’s drama lineup. There is no official word on if the sixth season will be the last, but Fogelman has intimated that is the plan, telling Deadline, “That’s when the Pearson story will basically come to a close.” Either way though, he knows how everything will end.
“We never set out to make a television series that was going to last 18 seasons,” the showrunner told the Hollywood Reporter soon after signing a mammoth nine-figure deal at 20th Television. “I have script pages I have written and I'm writing that really are deep, deep, deep into the future. We have a plan for what we're going to do, and I know what the plan is."
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