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Re-writing the Season
It’s a really huge challenge for us, I keep saying, ‘As if juggling this show with 18,000 timelines and characters isn’t hard enough.’This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman to Entertainment Weekly
In an October interview with Entertainment Weekly, creator Dan Fogelman said he and the writers debated setting the show in an alternate version of 2020 without the pandemic, or making the entire season take place during the quarantine lockdown that happened when the show was off the air.
“It’s a really huge challenge for us, I keep saying, ‘As if juggling this show with 18,000 timelines and characters isn’t hard enough.’ It really is a complicated question. I can’t tell you the amount of debate that has gone into everything from our show existing in a world that corona has not happened — like many shows are going to choose to do — to making an entire first nine episodes all happening during a quarantine period in our off-season. We’ve been all over the map. I think we have a plan that splits the balance.”
To ‘split the difference,’ the show decided to tackle every major event that happened this spring and summer over the course of the season premiere, up until the Big Three’s Birthday on August 31. The rest of the season will continue amidst the pandemic as we watch its ripple effects on the Pearson family’s lives catch up to real time.
Precautions on Set
This Is Us took lots of pandemic precautions in real life to make filming safe for the cast and crew. Before filming, everyone was tested and isolated. On set, masks were required between takes.
Dan Fogelman shared a behind-the-scenes picture of Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia wearing masks and standing over six feet apart on the first day of filming in September.
A 2020 television sex scene. We’re back. #ThisIsUs pic.twitter.com/0UK7uvpUW8— Dan Fogelman (@Dan_Fogelman) September 24, 2020
Cast members also shared some behind-the-scenes glimpses into working on a safe set during the pandemic. In between filming, each cast member had a separate isolation chamber made of plexiglass.
📢 Welcome to the first race at Zone A on the grounds of #ThisIsUs. There at the gate…. anddd they’re off! Place your bets!!!!💰#TeamToby #TeamRandall or #TeamMiguel? 🤷🏿♂️ pic.twitter.com/4fVmEhu4zD— Sterling K Brown (@SterlingKBrown) October 1, 2020
Coronavirus Health Concerns
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While season four ended with a flash-forward to the Big Three’s fortieth birthday that was filmed and aired before the pandemic began, the show was able to incorporate a storyline that brought everyone together safely.
All three of the Pearson triplets are taking the COVID-19 situation very seriously. Hand sanitizer and masks were a major component in the episode, and characters talked openly about getting tested for the virus.
Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) are particularly intense about safety. When Randall comes home from a day working at city hall, Beth immediately makes sure he takes off his shoes and sanitizes before coming into the house. Randall also mentions that he has been spending time handing out PPE (personal protective equipment) to his constituents to make sure everyone in his community is protected.
The twins are being just as cautious, especially around baby Jack and pregnant Madison (Caitlin Thompson). When Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison share their big news with Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), they do so outdoors from six feet apart. The characters have to air-hug to celebrate.
In order for the family to come together on the East Coast for the Big Three’s birthday (a storyline written before the pandemic), the twins and their partners isolate for twenty days and everyone gets tests for the virus. They also forgo flying in order to come into contact with fewer people, and opt to drive across the country to the family cabin.
This Is Us has never shied away from talking about race. Race has been a central part of adopted son Randall’s experience growing up as a Black man in a White family. Over the past few seasons, Randall his been exploring his own identity and relationship with race, which was amplified in the season premiere.
When the Black Lives Matter protests came to the forefront of the national news in June, Sterling K. Brown was very vocal about his involvement in this movement for social justice on social media.
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The show used the national spotlight on this movement to bring up some difficult conversations for the Pearsons. Randall, Beth, and their daughters are shown watching protests and police brutality on the news, which clearly takes a toll on their mental health.
This leads Randall to have a meaningful discussion with his daughter’s boyfriend Malik (Asante Blackk) about how it felt to watch videos of police brutality. This moment brings the characters closer for the first time, and is impactful for is nuanced discussion of this issue.
This is also the first time that Kate takes an active interest in racial justice. She reaches out to Randall often in an attempt to be a supportive ally. While Randall recognizes that Kate is well-meaning, he does not want to take on more emotional labor to educate her about his experiences.
The most impactful moment of the episode comes when Randall and Kate finally discuss this issue face-to-face. Randall points out that, while there has been increased scrutiny on issues of racial injustice this year, police brutality has been happening over the course of their entire lives. Kate recognizes that she could have done more to be an ally sooner, and Randall shares his complicated feelings openly with his sister. He thanks her for her support, but also doe not let her off the hook for not being more involved earlier in their lives. This discussion reflects lots of similar difficult conversations that happened in families across the nation this summer.