With multiple characters to service and timelines to tackle, “This Is Us” is not an easy show to produce. Now creator Dan Fogelman has added another ambitious wrinkle to production: Vietnam.
Starting with this week’s episode, “Vietnam,” “This Is Us” dives deep into the story of Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and his tour of duty in 1971. In particular, the flashbacks will showcase the relationship between Jack and his younger brother Nicky (Michael Angarano), who also served — and ultimately died in combat.
“Vietnam” is a departure from the normal “This Is Us” storytelling, which usually shifts from the present-day stories of Jack’s now-grown children to flashbacks of Jack and wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore). In this episode, the story begins with the moment Jack finally reunited with Nicky at war, before traveling in reverse to tell the story of how Nicky got drafted, their home life with an abusive father, and all the way back to Nicky’s birth.
“I find it an interesting way to tell the story of these two brothers and how it relates to war, and start at the end point,” Fogelman said. “I’m proud of its ambition. It feels by the time you get to the end of the episode you feel like you’ve gone on a long journey with a character that you thought you knew really well walking into it.”
Most of the episode was shot just north of Los Angeles, with Lake Piru doubling for Vietnam. But “This Is Us” has also shot in Vietnam, and will return to the country for more intensive production later this month. Not only will the show focus on the story of Jack and Nicky during war, but a present-day story also will follow Kevin (Justin Hartley) as he retraces his father’s story. Charlie Robinson (“Night Court”) plays Robinson, one of Jack’s former troop mates who guides him on that journey.
Because they’re shooting two very different stories and time periods at the same time, “the challenges that it presents are wildly unique,” Fogelman said. “Also, Saigon of today — Ho Chi Minh City — is very different. We try not to do anything half-assed, but there’s a whole new set of challenges when you’re off the Paramount lot.”
Fogelman was meticulous in crafting the Vietnam story, down to using actual footage of the 1969 Vietnam War draft lottery. Fogelman decided to give Nicky an October 18th birthday, since it was the fifth number chosen, and guaranteed he would have been drafted.
As an advisor, Fogelman reached out to a literary hero: Tim O’Brien (“The Things They Carried”), who has written extensively about his experiences in the Vietnam War, and was featured in the recent Ken Burns docuseries “The Vietnam War.”
“We knew what the general arc of the Vietnam story was going to be but our average writer is 30 years old who was not alive during Vietnam,” Fogelman said. “Tim formed the basis of what our storyline is for this season. We had an idea of where we wanted to go from A to B, but not how we were going to get there. We sucked him in and now he’s reading scripts that have nothing to do with Vietnam, he’s giving notes on Kate’s storyline. It’s been a real thrill and to get his stamp of approval.”
O’Brien said he had never been in a writers’ room, but was a fan of the writing on “This Is Us.”
“It was amazing being on the set and also watching, it was like your life being filmed — only there’s this handsome guy,” O’Brien said. “I’m the outsider, but I thought it was an amazingly subtle, no mistakes along the way. It felt like a dream of your own life.”
The Vietnam story is also a little more action oriented — and contains gruesome scenes of war. “We have war films, but in a show like this that speaks to a wider audience you don’t see this,” Fogelman said. “It was interesting we’ve had so much attachment to storylines about alcoholism or addiction or body image or depression or anxiety and people attach to different storylines that they relate to. My hope is vets will see something reflected here and in these storylines that they recognize.”
Actors involved in the firefight scenes went through a boot camp, and when it came time to shoot hour after hour of running from foxhole to foxhole, Ventimiglia said it was the first time he ever admitted on set that he was tired. But he was also looking forward to tackling a new portion of Jack’s story (and, likely, moving past the obsession last season over his character’s death).
“The whole concept of Jack as a younger man was challenging,” he said. “I know who Jack is as a father, I know who he is as a husband. But getting into him as a young man trying to navigate not only his own life in turbulent times but the turbulent times of where the world is, that was challenging. We haven’t gone too deep into that part of Jack. This was just the beginning.”
Fans of “This Is Us” likely recognized the origins of one specific Jack trait: His habit of putting his hands on his kids’ necks while telling them to “breathe.” As revealed in “Vietnam,” it came from Robinson, who had just been injured and was being airlifted.
Going forward, “This Is Us” will continue to rotate its flashback stories, but the Vietnam storyline between Jack and Nicky will continue to unfurl throughout the rest of the season. Fogelman said it was another challenge to balance all of the show’s stories and make sure no character gets short shrift.
“This show never gets boring,” Fogelman said. “You’re asking a network audience to pay attention and saying, ‘Hey, this week you’re going to experience a very different episode. I think you’re going to like it, I think you’re going to learn some stuff.’ Hopefully you’re snapping a finger at the audience and telling them never get too comfortable. We’re going to keep trying to push ourselves.”