But look a tad closer and you’ll find that This is Us is actually a remarkable series for three reasons that screenwriters should take note of, especially if we want to further understand the changing landscape of TV drama. Here are three ways that T.I.U. has shaken up drama TV:
1. It’s the first Multi-Era Ensemble Show.
That’s right, I just made up a new term for what Dan Fogelman, the show’s creator, has given us. Sure, lots of shows use flashback. In fact, you can’t throw a stick in TV drama without hitting a flashback. Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, The Walking Dead, you name it… everybody’s flashing back with reckless abandon. It’s all the rage. To be clear, a flashback is when a story goes back in time to explain or support the goings-on in the present. In a flashback, the scenes or sequences that take place in the past don’t usually have full-bodied integrity as independent stories. Once they’ve carried water for the primary, current story line, they’re usually dropped. Yup, left by the side of the road like a bag of unwanted kittens.
But T.I.U. does more than merely flash back. Jack and Rebecca Pearson, the young married couple whose story takes place decades ago, do a lot more than simply set up the present-day narrative of their children, Randall, Kate, and Kevin. Jack and Rebecca are living their own, expansive story; it just happens to be set between 1979 and the present.
If it feels as if T.I.U. wanders through time, that’s because it does. It’s a little like Modern Family meets Interstellar. We see all five protagonists in various stages of their lives, interacting, loving, fighting, crying — you name it — throughout the entirety of the first season. It’s all happening at once, shown in concurrent time streams. That’s the Interstellar part, and that’s where Fogelman is breaking a craft barrier that writers like us must take note of and learn from.
2. Fogelman cares not for verisimilitude.
T.I.U. is where believability goes to die. I say this because all drama stretches verisimilitude. After all, writers must construct dramatic situations, which usually requires finding hard-to-believe ways to keep the principle characters in the same place long enough to have conflict. How many times have we seen a Christmas or Thanksgiving-themed episode of a sitcom in which all the characters have some hokey reason to spend the holiday with their work friends. Sure, it’s hard to believe, but the audience wants all their fave TV stars in the same room every week, so the writers find a thin reason to keep them there.
But T.I.U. is more outlandish than most shows. Fogelman lowers the bar on believability to bring his time-scattered lead characters together for all the drama you can stand.
Consider the show’s premise, which hinges on the moment that Randall, one of the three middle-aged siblings going through their lives in the present, is adopted by the Pearson family back in 1979. After Randall is abandoned on the doorstep of a fire station, he just happens to be brought into the hospital where Rebecca, who lost one of her triplets during childbirth, is convalescing. When Jack, Rebecca’s husband, sees a newborn in a crib right next to his two surviving children, he figures he might as well just walk home with baby Randall and, thus, he could still have three kids. So he does. Voila!
But when can you just saunter out of the hospital with a baby that’s not yours? Answer: never. That’s why Fogelman doesn’t parse the details about – or even show us — Randall’s impossible-to-believe adoption. He just cuts away from that moment and we find out thirty-six years later that Randall became a Pearson. That’s the kind of garish sleight of hand you wouldn’t see in Parenthood. But then, a lot of folks absolutely love T.I.U., so maybe I’m just poking more holes in Fogelman’s Swiss cheese out of envy. The point is — it works.
Oh, and there’s plenty of other unbelievable stuff Fogelman does so that he can keep putting his leads together in the same place and time. Remember when Kevin moved into Randall’s house even though Randall’s dying biological father was already living there? Why in God’s name would Kevin do that? We’re told he made three million bucks a year until he quit his job — but he can’t find a nearby hotel? Of course not. Because Fogelman wants Randall and Kevin in the same house. Again, it’s a massive stretch, but it works. Fogelman shoots and scores.
By the way, did you see the episode that took place in the eighties where Randall plays football against Kevin, his brother? It makes total sense because Randall went to a private school while Kevin went to public, right? And Randall played linebacker while Kevin played quarterback, which worked out well because that way Randall could actually sack his own brother during a game and… Oh, hell, I don’t buy it any more than you do. But the show’s audience did, and that’s why Fogelman is eating at Matsuhisa and I’m searching my couch for enough spare change to buy a Whopper Jr.
3. T.I.U. violates the Rule of Escalation.
As I tell my screenwriting students at N.Y.U., you should always raise the stakes and escalate the situation. You never lower the stakes, right? Well, Dan Fogelman says “No” to that jive. And every once in awhile, he de-escalates the dramatic situation. He actually lowers the tension, refusing to listen to screenwriting gurus like me — and the audience loves him for it.
Remember the scene where Beth, Randall’s wife, sits Randall’s destitute biological father down and demands to know where he’s been going every morning when he leaves their house? She’s just as sure he’s going to buy drugs as the audience is. And Fogelman wants you to think that, too. But no, we learn, he isn’t taking the bus to buy crack. He just has a cat. In Philadelphia. That he feeds every day. He didn’t want anybody to know about it, that’s all. And just like that, all the tension of the moment is relieved. Big, warm, fuzzy hug time. No more drama. And it works. So go figure.
Those are three big lessons you can learn from This is Us that you won’t find in my otherwise groundbreaking book, Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter. But then, This is Us isn’t really a comedy, so I guess that lets me off the hook for not writing about this excellent new show until now.