When “This Is Us” debuted its fourth season, audiences were taken aback. Yes, it was a time-hopping, dramatic, hourlong episode with an array of different characters telling seemingly disconnected stories — but none of those characters were Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), Kate (Chrissy Metz), Toby (Chris Sullivan), or Kevin (Justin Hartley).
“We took a big risk in the season premiere,” creator Dan Fogelman said during the show’s TCA panel Saturday morning. “We [have] all these great, amazing actors who aren’t really in the episode that much.”
Fogelman credited NBC for trusting the show to make bold choices, like the one fans responded to in the premiere — 7.8 million viewers watched that episode, according to final national numbers. Now, at the midway point of Season 4, the new characters — including a teenage father played by Asante Black and a veteran suffering from PTSD played by Jennifer Morrison — have become integral parts in the lives of the Pearson clan, making a smooth transition into an ever-growing ensemble. Ratings remain strong and the current season has earned award nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and Writers’ Guild.
But there is reason for concern about how demand for the show affects its quality. Adding new characters to an established ensemble is a historic tell, indicating writers are running low on conflict within the main cast and need to introduce it elsewhere. Cast shake-ups can result with new fan favorites — as “This Is Us” has with Lyric Ross (who was upped to a series regular in Season 3) — but just as often exhaust an audience who tune in to watch the main characters.
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Fogelman is adamant all the additions, as well as the trademark plot twists, are part of the endgame for “This Is Us.” “Honestly, for the most part, we’ve really tried to stick to a plan for the overall show that’s been there since the very beginning,” Fogelman said.
Fogelman, who’s long been adamant he knows the ending of “This Is Us,” said he really loves additions like Black and Ross, but their storylines aren’t tossed in to help fill lengthy network seasons — “This Is Us” makes 18 hourlong episodes a year, while its competitors in the Best Drama Emmy race make six to 10 — and neither are the twists.
“How Jack died was always part of the plan,” Fogelman said. “When I had that first meeting [with NBC] I told them originally that I wanted to reveal it in the second season — and I wanted to get that Super Bowl episode. […] Our plan has kind of held and we kind of lucked into a network that’s supported our plan.”
Now the plan calls for another big surprise, timed to arrive in Tuesday’s midseason premiere. Teased by Sterling K. Brown, who was on hand for the panel along with co-stars Watson, Metz, Sullivan, Hartley, and Mandy Moore, the next “Twist Is Us” staple will reframe Randall’s mental health.
“So Fogelman and our writers came up with a storyline that I think is quite compelling,” Brown said. “It allows us to delve further into Randall’s mental health and how he takes care of himself; what’s right and what’s wrong about how he’s taking care of himself, and how he can do a better job of that.”
“It starts one of our trilogy sets of episodes where all three are in the same timeline,” Fogelman said of the episode. “It’s a very intense, very unusual episode of our show. It’s about one thing, but it’s also about the marriage between Beth and Randall.”
Both men had to be vague in order to guard against spoiling the story; after all, “This Is Us” has been renewed through Season 6, its ending has already been conceived (and parts of it have even been shot), so protecting developments mapped out years in advance are even more critical than usual. It’s harder to pivot when you’re working toward a set point, so even if it feels like Fogelman’s drama is “going sideways” (as Brown described the upcoming twist), it’s all part of the plan.
“This Is Us” returns Tuesday, January 14 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.