SPOILER ALERT: The story includes details about “The Challenger”, the premiere of This Is Us’ sixth and final season on NBC.
NBC’s flagship drama series This Is Us returned tonight for its sixth and final season tonight. Per This Is Us tradition, the season premiere marks the Big 3’s birthday but their 41st birthday celebration was mixed with flashbacks to the way they marked the occasion in the pilot five years ago — Kevin sharing with models that the Challenger disaster may have thrust his life on the wrong path, Randall tracking down his birth father and Kate struggling with her weight.
The premiere’s past storyline was set on the January 1986 day of the Challenger explosion and explored the impact the tragedy had on Kevin, Randall and Kate — then about six-years-old.
In the present, Kevin and Madison try to co-parent and she seems ready to move on after their failed wedding with a chummy guy from book club, forcing Kevin to move out of the couple’s garage and into Kate and Toby’s house.
Toby is stuck in Silicon Valley on Kate’s birthday but sets up babysitting and a massage session for her, capping the day by coming home to surprise her. Meanwhile, Kate overhears future husband Phillip explaining to a beautiful woman that he had dumped her because she bores him.
Kevin gets an offer for The Manny reboot, this time as the father, not the hot manny. He initially turns it down but later reconsiders, putting stability and being around his children first.
Randall confronts in court the knife-wielding burglar from Season 4 who turns out to be a drug addict with no recollection of the incident. Randall ends up bailing him out and arranging a spot for him at a shelter but the guy is a no show. The experience leaves Randall determined to do more for the people of his city.
Meanwhile, in a heartbreaking sign of what’s to come as she battles Alzheimer’s, Rebecca struggles to remember the word caboose. Seeing her frustrated — and helpless — brings despair for Kevin but Kate tries to lift him up. “We found the light before, we will find it again,” she reminds him.
In a Q&A with Deadline, This Is Us creator/executive producer Dan Fogelman speaks about the personal experience behind “The Challenger” and how the events in the premiere set up the final story arcs for Rebecca and the Big 3. He also discusses other upcoming major storylines and The Manny reboot, teases future episodes, including next week’s “Lovebirds,” and possible returns of favorite characters and addresses a potential Omicron impact on production as This Is Us is aiming at an almost uninterrupted final season run.
DEADLINE: You wrote the pilot, in which Kevin mentioned the Challenger disaster, and tonight’s Season 6 premiere which explored the tragedy’s impact on the Big 3. It felt personal; you were 9, I believe, at the time. Was the Challenger explosion something that affected you?
FOGELMAN: It was. I was close to 36 years old when I first sat down to write the series. By the time it actually got made and put on television, I was a couple of years older than the characters. So, these characters were like 6, 7 and I was more like 9-10.
I had a very blessed childhood, growing up, a pretty normal childhood in Pittsburgh, where grandparents, including a set of grandparents who had divorced and gotten remarried, nobody had died. I had not experienced a lot of personal loss, and so, that experience of watching the Challenger explode on national television in a classroom when I was a kid was a really early moment of trauma for a lot of kids who hadn’t experienced personal loss yet. It’s hard to just accomplish it in one episode of television, but at that time — and everybody who’s seen it who’s roughly of the same generation as I am remembers that experience very viscerally — the television being wheeled into the room and then quickly being shut off when the teachers realized what was happening and wheeled out of the room; it was very formative.
I can’t even speak to what it did to me as much as just I do have a really tangible memory of it where I was sitting in the room when it happened. In order to really understand it, you have to understand that kids at that time, we had been fed at school, it was such a big deal that this teacher was going up into space. We had had a lot of time sitting and getting educated about it and about her, and so it was very personal to a whole generation, I think, of American kids, when it happened, who were of that age.
DEADLINE: The way you described it, it feels like yours was close to Kevin’s reaction. Of the Pearson triplets, was his the one that mirrored how you felt at the time?
FOGELMAN: Yeah, we had great conversations in our writers’ room about varying people’s reactions and how much it affected them. One person remembered a child who had actually, not knowing what to do with their feelings, they started laughing and cheering when everybody realized what happened because he or she was a little kid who didn’t really completely understand what was going on, and that was how they vented.
I think the triplets are all going through it in the show in different ways, and Kevin has had a tendency to repress a lot of the really bad stuff. I think, at various times, Kate and Randall have an easier time sinking into feelings and talking about their feelings, and Kevin has been somebody who lives in a constant state of existential crisis, potentially because he has a really hard time addressing stuff.
And so, it’s much easier for Kevin, as a little boy, to say, oh, it’s just all on television, it wasn’t real, than it is for him to process what exactly has happened, and it’s only at the end of this episode when he lies in bed with his little sister, who is his most intimate confidant, that you can see what’s really going on in his mind’s eye, which is what goes on through a lot of kids’ eyes when they see trauma or see loss; it is the realization that the two people who I depend on, my mom and my dad, or some combination of that, are going to die at some point, and that’s a really, really intense realization for little kids.
DEADLINE: The Challenger disaster remark by Kevin in the pilot, did you intend at the time for it to be revisited? Because this is probably the longest it’s taken for something mentioned on a show to be addressed again.
FOGELMAN: Yeah. I had always talked about wanting to go back towards the things that were discussed in the pilot, and particularly, the Challenger explosion. It was this past year that we decided to make it our season premiere because of the territory we’re going to be exploring in the course of the season and just in terms of setting the tone. But in terms of returning for the Challenger explosion and seeing what it did to Kevin as a little boy and the other kids, yeah, it was always something that we wanted to return to at the end. To say, in the back of minds an entire episode was mapped out, no, we’re never as smart as I’d like it to seem we are, but yeah, it was definitely intended.
DEADLINE: In the Season 6 premiere, there was multiple nods to the pilot. The Challenger line was part of the montage of the Big 3 and Jack’s birthday celebrations, and also Kate’s speech to Kevin referenced the low moments they went through in the pilot. The retrospective tone, is this something that you’re going to continue, this being the final season?
FOGELMAN: No, it’s not something we’re going to continue. It was intentional to set up the feeling of nostalgia for the audience and for all of us who have stuck with the show for six years. The idea that we’re at the beginning of completing a journey, and in this first episode back, I’m going to remind you of where this all started in the same hour of television, and we’re also going to continue the story, is more intentional in that we’re now entering the beginning of the end of our story. It was an opportunity for us, as we start the season, to remind the audience of that and put that into the context of our show and then set us forth for the final bit.
DEADLINE: OK, not many flashbacks to previous episodes. What about bringing back favorite characters? That’s also a staple for final seasons of shows.
FOGELMAN: Yeah. We’ve always had characters who were the favorites returning quite often, people like Gerald McRaney and Ron (Cephas Jones) and other parents in the show have always been filtered in throughout our series. So, the hope would be, yeah, you get a sendoff for all those characters, as well.
We have plans in how we’re going to do all that stuff. One of my favorite things about ever going to a great Broadway show — if you’re lucky enough to get to New York and go to a great show, back when all the theaters were open — is that moment, at the end, when we’ve really fallen into a show, and one by one, the characters who you’ve just watched for three hours get to come out and take their little bow.
I’ve always hoped that we could give that to all the actors in the show, which is not all at the end, not all in the final episode, or anything like that, but tangible moments where these characters — whether it be the younger versions of our adult actors or teenagers — get their final moment in the sun before we close the book.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Gerald and Ron. The pilot featured his Dr. K, it featured William. Should we assume that those key characters that kicked off the show would find their way into the final season?
FOGELMAN: That would be the hope, yeah. I don’t commit to anything, anymore, with not knowing what’s ahead with Covid, but yeah, that’s for sure.
DEADLINE: We will address the pandemic in a bit. Let’s first go through the storylines that you set up in the premiere. We can see how the seeds for Kate’s romance with Phillip are being planted, but it also seems like Toby would not give up his marriage without a fight with this grand romantic gesture of him coming back for Kate’s birthday. How long will that play out until we get to Kate and Phillip’s wedding?
FOGELMAN: It’s going to take a while. This season has a slow build towards it to set up the dominoes that then have to fall, particularly in relating to that story. As you said, we always felt that this is not a marriage that would just go quietly into the night. It would be a marriage that both participants fight for, and so, yeah, it doesn’t happen immediately. When it does happen, I think it’s going to be done in a way that feels both real but doesn’t all feel like one thing in that it doesn’t just feel like two characters who are being vicious towards each other nonstop and have fallen out of love, and it’s ugly, and terrible, and mean.
I think when you’re able to zoom out, using both time and perspective, divorces and marriages falling apart, which happens quite commonly, can also lead to beautiful things, and I think though people cry a lot at our television show, I’ve always thought that it has a really positive view of humanity and of people, and even the ugly stuff and the difficult stuff can provide some beautiful catharsis. That’s the goal, as we dive forward and attack this. It’s something we haven’t done on the show yet. All of our core couples have made it, and so, this is an opportunity for us to do something that’s very prevalent and very real and hopefully attack it in a real beautiful way.
DEADLINE: Well, they are not a core couple, but tonight’s premiere seems to be signaling the end of Kevin and Madison as a couple. Should we read it that way?
FOGELMAN: Yeah, it’s possible. Certainly, they’re further away from ever having a future at the end of this episode than they were when the episode started. Kevin’s romantic answer — and whether there even is one — is something I get asked about more than anything, probably, these days, and there’s a journey ahead for it. We have a plan for it. Whether or not that means Kevin winds up with anybody, whether he winds up with anybody we’ve met before, whether he winds up with nobody, that’s all still to be told, but there is a plan for where his story is going romantically, one way or the other.
DEADLINE: For the third Pearson sibling, Randall, there also seems to be some planting of seeds when he says, towards the end of the episode, that he wants to do more for the people of the city. Is this how he will get to that rising political star future that we saw in a flash-forward?
FOGELMAN: Yeah. It’s a big piece of it. When you read these stories of these people who rise to prominence — in any field, particularly a field like politics — I think it’s very easy to point to moments and say: that was the moment when so-and-so became a national figure, but there’s a much quieter, longer build to those stories. I think time is the biggest factor to prominence for Randall, I think this is certainly a next step in something that starts moving him forward in that direction, but he’s got a journey. Like Kevin has a romantic journey, Randall has a career journey ahead that will mirror his mother’s health decline in an interesting way as we move forward into the final season. The timeline of his rise to prominence will closely coincide with the timeline of the progression of Rebecca’s illness, and that’s a complicated thing for a guy like Randall.
DEADLINE: Since you mentioned Rebecca, in the premiere there is balance that you’ve talked about going into the final season, balancing darkness and light, especially in Kate’s speech to Kevin towards the end. How much of that will we see? How depressing will the show get before it gets optimistic again?
FOGELMAN: It won’t. Certainly this opening episode is sowing the seeds, you can’t lie. She’s battling a really difficult prognosis and disease, and it’s a disease that really affects the entire family and not just the person who’s suffering from it. So, it’s not something we’re hiding from, but we’re aware of what people want from a television show and how they want that handled, and I think we have a good balance ahead of us. I think we have an actress [Mandy Moore] who’s able to make it feel real, lived-in and warm, and I think the way she’s attacking her prognosis as the episodes move forward keep it…palatable is not the right word, but somehow, it’s still a piece of entertainment.
Our second episode was very strategically an episode that is propulsively uplifting for Rebecca in the same time period, and I think that’s the balancing act both of the show and of our lives. We get hit with really, really hard stuff, and unless you want to sit in a room all day and just be sad, you have to figure a way to balance the darkness and the light, and the theme of our first episode is to set the tone for the season, but it’s also a lot of what our core principle was, making this television show.
DEADLINE: Are there any other major final season storylines that you did not tee off in the premiere?
FOGELMAN: Yeah. We have a bunch. A big one coming, not immediately, but in the front half of our season, is a storyline that we’ve been excited to tell for a long time and always planned on telling in the last season, which is the coming together, romantically, of Rebecca and Miguel, after Jack’s death; how that happened, and the ebbs and flows in that relationship.
It’s a very heavy mother/daughter early part of the season. It’s Kate and Rebecca, this team of mother/daughter who are always both holding onto each other firmly but also constantly at war, as only mothers and daughters can sometimes do, as they find a new normal for themselves.
That’s a big one, early on, and our next episode up, it’s a favorite episode of mine just in that it’s one of our slightly specialized episodes that really deal with young love and old love as we explore Deja and Malik, while also exploring the completion, the B side of Uncle Nicky’s love story with a young woman he met back when he was a much younger man. It’s one of those specialized road trip episodes where you’ve got a young love story and an older love story, speaking towards one another.
DEADLINE: Maybe, we’ll get some clues as to Deja being pregnant in the flash-forward, but maybe it’s too far ahead in the future.
FOGELMAN: It’s ahead.
DEADLINE: The flashback storyline in the premiere is set in the 1980s, and it seems like that’s a period that you’ll be exploring heavily in the final season; I’ve seen interviews with Milo Ventimiglia, and he wears the same beard.
FOGELMAN: Well, no, Milo will be in multiple hairstyles and looks this season, it’s a constant balancing act. The one thing I won’t miss about the show is navigating Milo’s facial hair for the entire year at a time and how and when we shave it and then build back his facial hair and grow it back. But yeah, we really like this ’80s period with the littlest. We’re now getting towards a little bit older and are in that time right before the pilot, or building up to the time before the pilot, where it started.
It’s a great period for us because as we talk about the nostalgia of the show and being in the final season, it’s nice to go back to our kids at their youngest age, and so, that’s a period we’re leaning on heavily. We still have opportunities to return to Jack and Rebecca during their courtship days as the season moves on, as Jack’s getting to know her parents, and as always, there’s a ton of different little time periods we go to that are places we’ve lived before or new places — both in the past, and eventually, as the season moves along — in the future.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the reboot mania reflected in Kevin’s storyline, in which he is pitched a Manny reboot. Does it also from personal experience, is there a show that you would like to reboot; would you reboot one of your shows, like Galavant?
FOGELMAN: Oh, yeah, I’d reboot all my shows. Before This is Us, I had all these shows that only lasted 1 or 2 seasons that, as all showrunners do, we fall in love with, and we only hope that one day there’ll be a clamoring for it to be rebooted. I think it was always something we talked about for Kevin in that The Manny was such a part of his disillusionment and unhappiness as we started the show at the beginning of the pilot.
So, for him to return to a reboot of it — because all the stuff he was once worried about is not quite what he’s worried about anymore as he tries to solve this last piece of his existential crisis puzzle — always felt like a delicious opportunity for us. I think these reboots are so prevalent that it makes absolute sense that somebody would be approaching Kevin, right now, at this point in his career, and say, come back and do The Manny again, but this time, you’ll play the dad and not the manny, and so, it just felt like a really fun, funny opportunity.
Justin, he’s so funny — I think it’s so rare for somebody who looks like Justin to be as funny as he is — and it feels like a real opportunity for us to have fun with it. So, it was something we always wanted to get back to.
DEADLINE: In the premiere, Kevin initially turns does the reboot before deciding to do it.
FOGELMAN: That’s the journey that he’s going to go on is this idea, can he go back to where he started, this thing that he used to find so ridiculous, can he go back there to provide for his family, to stay in Los Angeles, to provide a stable basis for his kids, and is that something he can see through all the way and do?
And where does acting fall on his priority meter, anymore, versus providing a living and versus other things he wants to do with his life? Justin has this incredible episode as we get towards our trilogy, moving forward, that we’re just finishing shooting, right now, where it’s the closest that character has come to actually coming of age, in a certain way, and I’m really excited for it.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Covid, we have a new variant now. The same time last year, a surge delayed return to production, leading to This Is Us having to sub an original episode with a repeat at the last minute. The final season is premiering later than usual, allowing you to build a cushion of finished episodes. Do you think we’ll get an uninterrupted final season run?
FOGELMAN: You know I don’t know. I know that — as we start airing tonight — we’re more ahead than we’ve ever been in six years of doing the show. Last year, we were shooting, editing, and airing almost concurrently. It was crazy. This year, we’ll definitely have enough episodes in the bank to at least do a version of what we’ve always done — make half the season, then a little break, and then the rest of the season.
But if we’re able to continue going safely, hopefully, we’ll plan to air basically uninterrupted except for a couple weeks during the Olympics would stay intact. But, honestly, I’ve learned not to commit to anything anymore, because it’s just all so transitory with the virus constantly evolving, and our priority, like everyone’s, is safety. So, I don’t know what becomes of our schedule next, but I do know that, at the worst, it will be much like all the seasons have been previously and less like last year, no matter what.