Do not tell the man behind the biggest drama series on television that network shows are safe and predictable. Or that all the shows that break the mold and take chances are on cable or streaming services.
“We took a big risk with the season premiere,” said “This Is Us” creator/executive producer Dan Fogelman. (Spoiler alert: Don’t continue if you haven’t seen it.)
The Season 4 premiere of the hit NBC series focused almost entirely on three new characters — Cassie (Jennifer Morrison), a struggling war veteran; Malik (Asante Blackk), a teenage father; and an unidentified blind man (Blake Stadnik) who, we eventually learn, is the grown-up baby Jack Damon, the son of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan). Viewers spent much of the episode wondering who the heck they were.
Yes, it was a brave move when fans were tuning in to see “all these incredible, very famous, very talented actors who aren’t really in the episode very much,” Fogelman said. And the fact that the episode was not met with anything approaching universal praise simply speaks to the fact that it was a risk — the kind some viewers have trouble believing network shows take.
“For all the people who talk about the nature of broadcast television and network television not taking any risks,” Fogelman said, “that’s a big deal. And we’ve done that over and over and over again.”
And NBC executives have “never batted an eye.”
“I think there’s a huge audience out there for populist material that can speak to them and that they can relate to,” Fogelman said. “That can still be surprising and challenge their perceptions of what network TV is. And then it’s our job to make sure that it’s not so crazy that people have no idea what’s going on.”
Yes, “This Is Us,” which tells the story of the Pearson family by jumping between time periods over decades in their lives, can be a bit confusing at times if you’re not paying attention.
“I think if you’re coming to the show now ... for the first time, you’re going to have a difficult time figuring out what the hell is going on anyway,” Fogelman said. “So our job becomes, how do we make it followable?”
It’s still possible to come to the show after 71 episodes have aired — the Season 4 finale is Tuesday at 8 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5 — because you can go to Hulu and stream all the episodes. And, while there are those who insist that the best shows stream on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or Disney+, many of the most popular shows on streaming services were produced for broadcast networks. Given that pretty much all network shows stream somewhere, the line between the two is blurred at best.
“That’s a complicated thing,” Fogelman said. “It adjusts how we’re making the series sometimes, where you can’t just [assume] that everybody is going to be watching it live. ... A lot of people are going to wait four weeks and then watch [four episodes] all together. Or a lot of people are going to be watching it in a year and a half. So it’s a challenge.”
And “This Is Us” is trying to rise to that challenge by pushing its own boundaries. In Season 4, we’ve seen what was once the series’ most stable and reliable character — Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — become considerably less so. And that plotline is reaching a climax.
By the way, the title of Tuesday’s season finale is “Strangers, Part 2.” “Strangers” was the title of that much-debated season premiere with all the unfamiliar characters.