The next episode of “This Is Us” is dominated by women both on camera and behind the scenes.
“Our Little Island Girl” (Tuesday, 8 p.m., NBC/Ch. 5) focuses on Beth (Susan Kelichi Watson), giving us her backstory and introducing us to her formidable mother (Phylicia Rashad).
It was written by a woman, Eboni Freeman; directed by a woman, Anne Fletcher; and shepherded by two more women, showrunner/executive producer Elzabeth Berger and co-producer Kay Oyegun.
But this was not a Very Special Women’s Episode of “This Is Us.” This was business as usual for one of TV’s biggest hits.
“It is very special to us,” said Berger, “and I think we all feel this episode so deeply because of the acting and the direction. … But in terms of the writing, it’s not” unusual.
Eight of 12 “This Is Us” writers are women. And Berger is the woman in charge.
“That’s the way our writers’ room works,” Berger said. “That’s the way it goes for every episode we make.”
She was quick to point out that there are “wonderful men” working on the show, and credited creator/executive producer, Dan Fogelman, “who wasn’t afraid to have eight women on his staff” — although that’s far from the norm in television. And the makeup of the writing staff helps explain not just why “This Is Us” is populated by strong, female characters, but by strong women of color like Beth.
“I always think of Beth as, like, an every woman,” Watson said. “I say it all the time, but I think representation is so important. And I’m so excited that I get to play a black woman who’s just normal and just striving to do her best in life.”
“Beth is actually a bit of all of us,” Oyegun said, drawing laughter when she added, “she’s mostly like Dan.”
At the end of the Feb. 12 episode, Beth learned that her mother has injured her hip; at the beginning of the Feb. 19 episode, Beth and her cousin, Zoe (Melanie Liburd), rush to see “Mama C” (Rashad) — and try to talk her into retiring from her job as a school principal.
The episode is Beth's origin story; this being “This Is Us,” we meet two younger versions of Beth in flashback scenes.
“This is an episode of television that was really made by a group of women who I’m incredibly proud of” who tell “this woman’s story, both in the past and in the present,” Fogelman said.
We learn that Beth's first name is really Bethany. Where she went to college. How she met her husband, Randall (Sterling K. Brown). That her father (Carl Lumbly) was Jamaican-American — a plot point drawn from Watson's Jamaican heritage. That Beth and Randall both lost their fathers when they were teenagers.
We learn that Beth spent years training to be a ballerina, and what happened to that dream.
Freeman said her script explores the idea that Beth “was a bit of a different person, a quieter person, that she came from this world, this ballet world, which was mostly white. And so that was, I think, really interesting to delve into.”
As was the relationship with her mother, played by the former star of “The Cosby Show.”
“We really love what Phylicia brought to the role,” Berger said. “All of us were imagining [the character] a little bit harsher, and Phylicia brought this really brilliant mix of love and strength that surpassed our dreams for the role.”
Liburd said the first scene she and Watson had with Rashad was “terrifying.”
“[Watson] was, like, 'Oh, my God, I grew up watching you on TV. You’re amazing,'” she said with a laugh.
It's by no means a spoiler that Beth's future somehow involves dance. We've seen flash-forward scenes that make that clear. And both Beth and the woman who plays her have dance backgrounds. When she learned last fall where her character was headed, Watson started training again.
“I’ve been dancing all my life,” she said. “For me, it was, like, such a great opportunity to combine the things that I love.”
When you see the present-day Beth dance in Tuesday’s episode, that’s all Watson. There’s no dance double.
Beth and Randall's first meeting is just a moment in Tuesday's episode — Beth herself doesn't even notice Randall — but the show will be returning to that this season.
“We are going to be revisiting that moment,” Berger said, “and we’re going to be revisiting other moments of their college experience coming up really soon.”
And their current relationship will continue to evolve, she said. Randall is launching into a new political career as a city councilman, and Beth is on the verge of "finally figuring out what she wants to do.”
Sounding at least slightly annoyed, Oyegun said she wanted “everyone in Twitterville” to know that, while neither Randall nor Beth has been bringing home a paycheck for several months, they had “an amazing nest egg” from their lucrative former careers. They will face “a fork in the road” with the hit to their incomes, she said, and will have to “answer those challenges coming up.”
As Beth and Randall continue to struggle a bit, it’s worth remembering that fans have freaked out simply because Beth made her husband sleep on the couch.
“That’s all that’s happened, and people are, like, ‘Oh my God!’” Brown said. “I love that level of investment — that something so small can mean so much. And I think it’s a testament to our writers that we can make everyday life feel epic.”