When a TV show really connects with viewers, it's often a lightning-in-a-bottle experience; a collision of talent, material and public mood that is difficult to define. But that hasn't stopped people from asking Dan Fogelman, the creator of NBC's supersuccessful family drama This Is Us, this question: How did you pull this off?
Fogelman's answer: tone, timing and cast.
"There is a form of storytelling — a tone — that lives in between the laugh and the [heavy] emotion," says Fogelman, noting that This Is Us strikes a balance between the dark stories critics seem to love and the lighter, more populist fare. "If you hit that tone right, it can be everything."
[Editors' note: The rest of this story discusses some major plot points, so if you're not caught up on episodes, you may want to watch before reading further.]
Cast member Ron Cephas Jones explains the show's appeal a little differently. Jones played William Hill, a beloved character who was shown dying of cancer in the Feb. 21 episode.
He draws a line between material that an audience can tell is contrived to stir up emotions — Jones calls it "melodrama" — and the feelings that come from identifying with authentic characters, which he says is simply good drama.
And at a time when the news seems filled with stories about political conflict, racism, sexism, fear of immigrants and terrorism and more, Jones notes This Is Us offers a meditation on something different: love.
"It's become timely to remind people that love is the key, and not hate and not fear," he says. "The root of everything in the show is about redemption, it's about forgiveness; it really is about love. And I think that's what people are longing for. They want to see the richness of love."
This Is Us has struck a nerve. The show regularly tops ratings on Tuesdays among young viewers — those ages 18 to 49, whom TV advertisers love — and it has already been renewed for a second and third season before its freshman run ends Tuesday. The episode on Feb. 21 drew more than 15 million viewers — NBC's best numbers in that time slot in 10 years.
And it wasn't the most obvious hit on network TV. Its pilot episode had a complicated structure, centered on three 36-year-olds and a young couple about to have triplets. Viewers were introduced to Randall, a tightly wound corporate executive who finally tracked down the biological father who gave him up for adoption; Kevin, the star of a dumb, yet successful TV sitcom who wanted a bigger challenge; Kate, Kevin's sister, who is struggling with obesity and also served as his personal assistant; and the earnest couple Rebecca and Jack Pearson.
It wasn't until the pilot's end that viewers learned the twist that changed everything: Jack and Rebecca were parents to Kate, Kevin and Randall. The couple's moments as young parents in the pilot were flashbacks in time. Randall was a black child adopted into this white family when the Pearsons' third triplet died during birth.
And William, Ron Cephas Jones' character, is Randall's biological father, who left him at a firehouse after realizing his drug addiction made being a good father impossible.
Kevin Falls calls that kind of writing "Fogeldust" — the twists and emotional monologues that Fogelman sprinkles into scripts that elevate his shows. Falls is executive producer and showrunner of the other show Fogelman helped create for network TV last fall, Fox's Pitch, about the first woman to play on a Major League Baseball team.
"They're emotional gut punches that T-bone an audience member in the best possible way," says Falls, who worked directly with Fogelman as the show creator shuttled between the offices of Pitch and This Is Us when both shows were in production. "Every writer manipulates [the audience] ... so it is about hiding the strings ... not letting you know you're being manipulated. So when you have that big reveal at the end, the audience doesn't see it coming."
[Editors' note: Speaking of seeing things coming, if you aren't caught up on Pitch, you'll want to skip over the next paragraph.]
In Pitch, it's the moment when we learn that pitcher Ginny Baker's crusty father — whom we have seen mentor her through the trials of becoming the first female MLB player — is actually dead. Baker is just imagining her father at her side.
For This Is Us, "Fogeldust" moments come at least once an episode, particularly during the emotional conclusion of William's story, which aired Feb. 21. Welcomed into Randall's family as he's dying of cancer, William takes a final trip to Memphis with his son to visit old haunts and wrap up an old family conflict, dying in a local hospital before they can return.
"Dan writes beautiful monologues. ... It feels like a play," says Jones, a veteran of New York's theater scene. "So scenes have the space to breathe. He's giving the audience a moment to open themselves up [to what's happening on-screen]."
That skill in tapping into emotions has led to the most mystifying result for Fogelman: news that scenes from the show regularly make viewers cry.
"If you had said a year ago, 'Hey Dan, your show is going to be this big success, what do you think everybody's going to be talking about?' In a million years, I never would have thought it would be how much they are crying watching the show," Fogelman says, laughing. "It was not the intent, nor something I expected."
In fact, Fogelman takes less credit for writing the show than he does for its spot-on casting. He says TV shows in development are often derailed by two problems: Popular actors often refuse to audition for parts, and network TV executives second-guess the casting, refusing to let producers hire the actors they know are right for roles.
But This Is Us was different. Fogelman insisted actors read for parts, and he cast his top choices in every role. That meant hiring hunky Heroes alum Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, though Fogelman originally envisioned a more average-looking actor in a role the executive producer based on himself. Singer Mandy Moore turned out to be a perfect Rebecca for Ventimiglia's Jack. Jones was hired as William, though the actor admits he is more often cast as criminals or villains than fathers or grandfathers.
Fogelman, however, had no doubts. "I knew the cast was going to kill before we shot a frame [of film]," he adds. "The actors are so truthful, it feels real."
Known as an inventive writer behind films like Cars and Crazy Stupid Love as well as the TV musical Galavant, Fogelman has found unexpected success in This Is Us. It's a family drama that bounces around in time, showing the Pearson siblings at different ages and revealing the history of family frictions that shape their current lives.
It has offered affecting, incisive portrayals of Randall's struggle to handle growing up the only black child raised by a white family, along with Kate's issues with binge eating, weight and romance. And Randall's discovery that his mother knew William's identity and hid it from him until he found his biological father on his own has jolted the series.
There are critics who say the show is too manipulative, that it uses the emotion of powerful moments to paper over inconsistencies in plot or characters' actions. Or that the show is so focused on delivering stuff for fans to talk about later on social media and elsewhere that it sacrifices nuance.
But it's tough for a network TV show to completely avoid clunkers over an entire season. And some of the grousing feels a bit like snobbery, as though a network TV show with so many viewers couldn't possibly offer dramatic quality, too.
Fogelman promises the show's season finale has more dark moments, in which characters viewers have come to love will make bad choices that could test the allegiance of fans. But the drama of watching people with the best intentions occasionally make the worst decisions could be the secret sauce powering This Is Us' success.
"What I think the show might be appealing to is that person who wakes up every day determined to be a better person ... and probably fails 99 percent of the time," Fogelman says. "[They go] to sleep that night bummed out that they didn't do better and wake up the next day determined to do it again. Regardless of politics ... everybody's living the same existence where you're trying to live better and do better. How we get there is what's up for debate."
Editor Nina Gregory contributed to this report.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
You might want to get your tissues. The season finale of "This Is Us" airs tonight. The freshman show has been a surprise hit for its network, NBC, and consistently inspired tears. The show's creator, Dan Fogelman, is getting praise for revolutionizing family dramas on TV. NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans spoke with Fogelman.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's the one thing Dan Fogelman says he really doesn't understand about the success of "This Is Us" - why it makes people cry so much.
DAN FOGELMAN: If you'd have said, hey, Dan, your - a year ago - your show's going to be this big success; what do you think everybody's going be talking about? In a million years, I wouldn't have thought of how much they're crying watching the television show. It was not the intent nor something I expected.
DEGGANS: In fact, the show's reputation for bringing tears was so strong, cast members recorded a jokey public service announcement for Entertainment Weekly about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JUSTIN HARTLEY: Your Kleenex budget has doubled, honestly, hasn't it?
STERLING K BROWN: Your boss keeps offering you personal days.
MANDY MOORE: The owner of your local wine shop knows you by name.
DEGGANS: The best example comes in the show's pilot when experienced obstetrician Dr. Nathan Katowski has to explain to young father Jack Pearson that one of the triplet babies his wife Rebecca was delivering has died. The young father gets a bit of down-to-earth advice through an emotional monologue delivered by Dr. K., played by Gerald McRaney.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")
GERALD MCRANEY: (As Dr. Nathan Katowski) I like to think that maybe one day you'll be an old man like me talking a younger man's ear off, explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.
FOGELMAN: Probably the only time I've ever gotten choked up on a set of, like, one of my own things.
DEGGANS: Fogelman said that performance even affected staffers watching the scene on video monitors off camera during filming.
FOGELMAN: It was so beautiful. And like, as beautiful as it is in the show, when you were just standing at the video monitor watching this guy in this simple shot and, like, the tears were falling out of my eyes - I mean people were weeping in the video village area. And I was like, wow, this is going to be really special.
DEGGANS: "This Is Us" has struck a nerve with viewers. Recent episodes have drawn more than 15 million viewers each. That's a level of success network TV hasn't seen in a rookie series since Fox's "Empire" debuted in 2015. And it's a complicated show. The pilot episode introduced us to three 36-year-olds and a young couple about to have triplets.
It wasn't until the episode's end that viewers learned a twist. That young couple, Jack and Rebecca Pearson, are the parents of the three other characters. Scenes showing the Pearsons as young parents were actually flashbacks. One of the kids was a black child adopted into this white family when the Pearson's third triplet died.
KEVIN FALLS: What he brings to the show - he brings that Fogeldust (ph) that separates the show from other television shows on right now.
DEGGANS: That's Kevin Falls, showrunner of the other series Fogelman helped bring to network TV this fall, Fox's "Pitch." Falls says the twists and emotional monologues that Fogelman sprinkles through both series, the Fogeldust, helps keep audiences connected to the characters.
FALLS: The emotional gut punches that T-Bone an audience member in the best possible way. It's about hiding the strings. It's not letting you know you're being manipulated.
RON CEPHAS JONES: Dan writes beautiful monologues. Like, it feels like a play.
DEGGANS: Ron Cephas Jones, a New York theater veteran, plays William Hill, the biological father to the adopted son Randall Pearson. Three weeks ago, the show aired an emotional episode where William died of cancer. And a Fogeldust moment came when William told his biological son who'd taken him in and cared for him in his final days how he felt about his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")
JONES: (As William) I haven't had a happy life - bad breaks, bad choices, a life of almosts and could haves. Some would call it sad, but I don't because the two best things in my life were the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end.
DEGGANS: Scenes like this, Jones says, are why viewers connect to the show.
JONES: The root of everything in that show is about love. I think that's what people right now are longing for. They want to see the richness of love.
DEGGANS: Fogelman shrugs off compliments for the show's writing. He credits cast members like Jones for the show's success.
FOGELMAN: I didn't know if the show would be successful on a metric-rating's level, but I knew that the cast was going to kill, like, before we shot a frame.
DEGGANS: Before "This Is Us," Fogelman was best known as an inventive writer of films like "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and the musical TV series "Galavant." Now he's created a hit show, which NBC's already renewed for two more seasons, built around the drama of watching good people with the best of intentions occasionally make the worst decisions. Here's hoping Fogelman's good decisions help teach the networks how to make TV dramas even better in the seasons to come. I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF LORD HURON SONG, "I WILL BE BACK ONE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.