ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
You might want to get your tissues. The season finale of "This Is Us" airs tonight. The freshman show has been a surprise hit for its network, NBC, and consistently inspired tears. The show's creator, Dan Fogelman, is getting praise for revolutionizing family dramas on TV. NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans spoke with Fogelman.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's the one thing Dan Fogelman says he really doesn't understand about the success of "This Is Us" - why it makes people cry so much.
DAN FOGELMAN: If you'd have said, hey, Dan, your - a year ago - your show's going to be this big success; what do you think everybody's going be talking about? In a million years, I wouldn't have thought of how much they're crying watching the television show. It was not the intent nor something I expected.
DEGGANS: In fact, the show's reputation for bringing tears was so strong, cast members recorded a jokey public service announcement for Entertainment Weekly about it.
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JUSTIN HARTLEY: Your Kleenex budget has doubled, honestly, hasn't it?
STERLING K BROWN: Your boss keeps offering you personal days.
MANDY MOORE: The owner of your local wine shop knows you by name.
DEGGANS: The best example comes in the show's pilot when experienced obstetrician Dr. Nathan Katowski has to explain to young father Jack Pearson that one of the triplet babies his wife Rebecca was delivering has died. The young father gets a bit of down-to-earth advice through an emotional monologue delivered by Dr. K., played by Gerald McRaney.
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GERALD MCRANEY: (As Dr. Nathan Katowski) I like to think that maybe one day you'll be an old man like me talking a younger man's ear off, explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.
FOGELMAN: Probably the only time I've ever gotten choked up on a set of, like, one of my own things.
DEGGANS: Fogelman said that performance even affected staffers watching the scene on video monitors off camera during filming.
FOGELMAN: It was so beautiful. And like, as beautiful as it is in the show, when you were just standing at the video monitor watching this guy in this simple shot and, like, the tears were falling out of my eyes - I mean people were weeping in the video village area. And I was like, wow, this is going to be really special.
DEGGANS: "This Is Us" has struck a nerve with viewers. Recent episodes have drawn more than 15 million viewers each. That's a level of success network TV hasn't seen in a rookie series since Fox's "Empire" debuted in 2015. And it's a complicated show. The pilot episode introduced us to three 36-year-olds and a young couple about to have triplets.
It wasn't until the episode's end that viewers learned a twist. That young couple, Jack and Rebecca Pearson, are the parents of the three other characters. Scenes showing the Pearsons as young parents were actually flashbacks. One of the kids was a black child adopted into this white family when the Pearson's third triplet died.
KEVIN FALLS: What he brings to the show - he brings that Fogeldust (ph) that separates the show from other television shows on right now.
DEGGANS: That's Kevin Falls, showrunner of the other series Fogelman helped bring to network TV this fall, Fox's "Pitch." Falls says the twists and emotional monologues that Fogelman sprinkles through both series, the Fogeldust, helps keep audiences connected to the characters.
FALLS: The emotional gut punches that T-Bone an audience member in the best possible way. It's about hiding the strings. It's not letting you know you're being manipulated.
RON CEPHAS JONES: Dan writes beautiful monologues. Like, it feels like a play.
DEGGANS: Ron Cephas Jones, a New York theater veteran, plays William Hill, the biological father to the adopted son Randall Pearson. Three weeks ago, the show aired an emotional episode where William died of cancer. And a Fogeldust moment came when William told his biological son who'd taken him in and cared for him in his final days how he felt about his life.
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JONES: (As William) I haven't had a happy life - bad breaks, bad choices, a life of almosts and could haves. Some would call it sad, but I don't because the two best things in my life were the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end.
DEGGANS: Scenes like this, Jones says, are why viewers connect to the show.
JONES: The root of everything in that show is about love. I think that's what people right now are longing for. They want to see the richness of love.
DEGGANS: Fogelman shrugs off compliments for the show's writing. He credits cast members like Jones for the show's success.
FOGELMAN: I didn't know if the show would be successful on a metric-rating's level, but I knew that the cast was going to kill, like, before we shot a frame.
DEGGANS: Before "This Is Us," Fogelman was best known as an inventive writer of films like "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and the musical TV series "Galavant." Now he's created a hit show, which NBC's already renewed for two more seasons, built around the drama of watching good people with the best of intentions occasionally make the worst decisions. Here's hoping Fogelman's good decisions help teach the networks how to make TV dramas even better in the seasons to come. I'm Eric Deggans.
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