LOS ANGELES — The story of one of TV’s most popular characters running for — and winning — a seat on Philadelphia City Council may seem like a stretch, but This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman has been thinking about the political future of Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) for a while now.
“We always felt that this guy was somebody who, from humble beginnings and a business background — this was long before our current political culture — was kind of destined for something,” Fogelman said this month as reporters visited the show’s Paramount Studios’ set during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings.
“There was an inherent decency and goodness that we kind of crave in our leaders, whether we call them political leaders or community leaders. So that was always a path we thought that he would wind up on,” he said.
Fogelman, who lived for a while in a house at 40th and Spruce during his time at the University of Pennsylvania in the ’90s, acknowledged that, yes, it was odd to have Randall’s Council election take place in the winter.
“It was going to be a special election, and we just didn’t want to get into political craziness because it’s not what the show’s” about, he said.
But as for Randall’s living in Alpine, N.J., a two-hour drive from Philly, Fogelman sees that not as a bug, but a feature, and he defended the idea that Randall’s owning an apartment building in the city was enough to make him eligible to run.
“His not living in Philly is his entire election story point, like that’s why he’s not supposed to win. Everybody thinks he’s … a carpetbagger and is coming in and he’s an outsider,” he said.
When I questioned whether Randall had the temperament for political life — the character’s never struck me as a narcissist, or even an extrovert, and he doesn’t appear to crave public adulation — Fogelman showed the optimism that’s been at the heart of so many of his movies and TV shows, from Crazy, Stupid, Love to Pitch and Galavant.
“I think a real statesman or [an] … ideal politician shouldn’t” need those qualities, he said. “We’re looking for a city councilman, first of all, and I think you’ll find a lot of inherently decent ones, including a friend of mine who just won in Long Island,” he said. (And, yes, Fogelman appeared to be aware of the recent federal indictment of Philadelphia Councilman Bobby Henon.)
Randall has yet to take office, and if the Tuesday, Feb. 19, episode of This Is Us is any indication, he and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) don’t seem to be making any immediate plans to move their family to Philly.
The episode, screened for critics on the Paramount lot, guest-stars Phylicia Rashad as Beth’s mother and Carl Lumbly as her father, and tells the long-overdue backstory of Watson’s character, who’s still my favorite Pearson.
“Phylicia [Rashad] was somebody that from the moment we cast Susan, we were like, if we ever get to [introduce] Susan’s mom, it’s got to be Phylicia,” Fogelman said of the actress still known to millions as The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable.
The episode, written by Eboni Freeman, who joined the show this season as one of eight women in a 12-person writers room, tells the story of a passion that Beth — or Bethany, as she was known as a girl — was forced by her strong-willed mother to leave behind. It also firmly establishes the character’s Jamaican heritage, something that particularly pleased Watson, whose parents came from Jamaica.
“They were so good about [it] because I grew up, man, hearing some chopped-up Jamaican accents, or what people call Jamaican accents,” Watson told reporters after the screening. “I mean, it … honors my culture in such a deep way. We talk about representation, but the specificity of where I’m from, it honors it so much in Carl Lumbly playing this role because he is authentically Jamaican. The man was born there; he’s there four times a year, you know? So what we’re hearing is an Americanized Jamaican, which is a lot of what, you know, second-generation, first-generation Jamaicans grew up around, especially Jamaicans who marry, you know, an American,” as Lumbly’s character has in the show.
That kind of specificity seems to be something Fogelman’s striven for on other fronts, even as This Is Us has explored story lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap, including the recent revelation that Nicky (Griffin Dunne), the uncle the Pearson siblings never knew because he died in Vietnam, is alive — if not very well — and living in a trailer in rural Pennsylvania.
Before taking Milo Ventimiglia’s character, Jack Pearson, back to his days in Vietnam and exploring the breach with his brother, Fogelman and his staff hired and consulted veterans and enlisted the help of Tim O’Brien, who “wrote the greatest American novel ever about Vietnam [The Things They Carried], in my opinion, and many people’s opinions.”
O’Brien, who wrote two episodes this season, “Vietnam,” and “Songbird Road: Part One,” was responsible, Fogelman said, for providing “the exact details of … the tragedy that would have fractured” the Pearson brothers in Vietnam.
But the plan for the fracture, like many of This Is Us’ twists and hairpin turns, was laid long before, Fogelman said.
Actors have also sometimes been let in on their characters’ arcs well in advance.
"For instance, if Justin [Hartley, who plays Kevin] hadn’t known that he was going to struggle with addiction … until the night before he started shooting that episode in Season Two, it probably would have affected the way he played his character for multiple seasons. So that big stuff, we try and give them. If it’s something surprising, if I’m telling one of them, ‘Uh, in Episode 11, you get hit by a car,’ they don’t really need to know that because it would change that character’s journey. Milo and Mandy [Moore, who plays Rebecca], though, for instance, need to know a lot because they’re traveling in time” through the show’s multiple periods, he said.
It may seem at times as though This Is Us exists to drain viewers’ tear ducts every week, but Fogelman insisted he’s not a sadist. He’s also not susceptible to pressure.
“I know people don’t want Beth and Randall to have problems or get divorced, [and] I’m not going to sit and make them get divorced just to mess with people. But I’m also not going to keep them together just because that pleases everybody,” he said. “We have a story that we knew where it was going all along and … we have very rarely strayed from that. If we have, it’s because we came up with a better idea, but not because we felt pressured into doing that. Because when you’re doing that by committee, you’re making all the wrong decisions.”