The writers and producers of NBC's This Is Us, which was unquestionably the breakout network hit of the 2016-'17 TV season, barely had any time to bask in their freshman year glory before they found an ominous question staring them in the face: How could they possibly sustain the momentum heading into Season 2?
Famously, second outings are fraught territory for people in any creative field. The concept of a "sophomore slump" is all too real, indicating a dip in quality that renders out-of-the-gate success a mere flash in the pan (See: Mr. Robot, UnREAL, Heroes). Even shows with all the cards in their corner stumble and fall when their creators are unsure how to expand the Season 1 story. And when it comes to This Is Us, a second season stumble was highly probable: the concept is a family drama, a classic format that doesn't quite reach the spectacle of other shows it competes against. After all, none of the Pearsons have superpowers, the show isn't set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and the multiple timelines aren't a gimmicky excuse to reboot. However, in today's television landscape, the show's back-to-basics simplicity proved key in helping the writers avoid a second season slip.
In fact, in 2017, This Is Us not only managed to avoid a sophomore slump, it actually turned the concept on its head and experienced an uptick in both quality and overall ratings. How did the show pull it off? Executive producers and co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger credit a writers' room that embraced risky storytelling, particularly by shifting away from the story's main mystery and refocusing on emotional arcs of previously underserved characters.
"Obviously there is this big looming question about how did Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) die in our series," says Berger. "And one of our number one challenges [moving into Season 2] was, how do we give some answers right away, but also show that we have enough interesting stuff going on this season that there's other great stuff to focus on until we get there? How do we spread out Jack's story in a satisfying way?"
After filling in a big piece of the puzzle in the season premiere, which revealed that Jack died in a fire, Aptaker knew that this was a real opportunity to "hold the audience's hand a little bit less and just go deeper into our characters."
As a result, the Pearson siblings - Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) - rather than their parents, Jack and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), have been doing the heavy emotional lifting in Season 2. "One of the things that's so cool about our show is we can play with the format, because people are so used to, at this point, us jumping around," Berger says. "So it was a great challenge for us to be like, 'What can we do this year that we didn't do last year? Oh, why don't we do three episodes and we'll focus each one on a different sibling? Why don't we show one day, three weeks in a row, but show it from different perspectives?'"
The strategy was wildly successful with the "Big Three Trilogy," culminating with a midseason finale that drew nearly 11 million viewers. "It was a really great opportunity to tell stories in a different way that we didn't get to do last year," says Berger of trip of episodes. Thanks to the show's refocus, the writers went deep on storylines including Kate's miscarriage, Kevin's years-too-late processing of his father's death, and Randall and Beth's first attempt at being foster parents. And the added depth to the siblings paid off, elevating the show beyond the addictive tearjerker it was in Season 1 into somewhat of a guiding light for its viewers, many of whom are wrestling with the same questions as the Big Three: How do I keep from making the same mistakes as my parents?
While the answer to this massive question won't be answered fully in Season 2, it's clear that NBC finds the emotional refocus worth exploring. Not only did the network renew the show for a third season before Season 2 even premiered, but it also gave This Is Us the coveted post-Superbowl slot. Aptaker and Berger (who were promoted from writer-producers in Season 1 to executive producers and co-showrunners for Season 2) say the network's faith in the show puts "a healthy kind of pressure" on the cast and crew.
"The hardest part, I think, in network television is trying to pace yourself, and part of that is because you literally don't know if you're running a 5k or you're running a marathon," Aptaker points out. "What's so great about this show is that right now we have this three-season order, 18, 18, 18 [episodes], so we can really plot it out in a way that you just can't do when you don't know how many years you're on, how many episodes you're doing. We're really able to have conversations where we hear a story and go, 'Oh, no, let's save that for, like, the middle of Season 3,' which is a very nice way to be able to work."
The co-showruners aren't quite sure how they'll replicate their success for Season 3, but they know where the heart of the show truly lies. "We're certainly not the first people to prove that you can find an audience by showing a really great, wonderful family who's trying their best despite their flaws," Aptaker says. "There's something great about turning on your television at night and inviting characters into your living room that feel like you could know them in real life, and are reflecting what you're experiencing back at you."
"People are obviously looking for a catharsis right now," Berger adds. "There's a lot out there in the world that makes you feel like we're all incredibly different from each other, we're all coming from completely different point of views. To have a place where you can sort of sit down for an hour a week and think, 'Oh, we're not that different. That reminds me of my family. That reminds me of my mom,' it's a very healing thing that right now I think the nation is looking for."
This Is Us returns with new episodes Tuesday, Jan. 2 at 9/8c on NBC.