Spoilers ahead for the premieres of NBC’s This Is Us and Fox’s Pitch.
Two promising dramas debuted this week on broadcast television, both created (at least in part) by Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Galavant) and both ending with well-hidden twists that send the stories in new directions. NBC’s This Is Us, a heartfelt, funny family drama that’s being hailed as a potential successor to Parenthood, packs the biggest wallop in the revelation that all of the main characters are related and one of the story lines takes place in the past. Fox’s promising Pitch, starring Kylie Bunbury as Major League Baseball’s first female player, ends with the reveal that her father, who pushed her to be the best pitcher she could be, died before she fulfilled her dream of joining the MLB.
The two shows have something else in common: They were initially conceived as movies. Seventy pages into the script of This Is Us, Fogelman realized the story wasn’t holding together for a two-hour film and set it aside, wondering if he might be able to turn it into a TV show. In the meantime, co-creator Rick Singer had written a version of Pitch, also intended as a feature film. When executive producer Tony Bill met Fogelman at a party four or five years ago and mentioned the project, it stayed on his mind. He and Singer worked together on developing it into a TV show and co-wrote the pilot. Fogelman, who already had experience creating heartfelt surprises on Crazy, Stupid, Love, spoke to Vulture about his favorite onscreen twists and the challenges of creating them.
You’ve now written a movie and two TV shows that have surprising twists. Is this something you’ve studied, or are you just a fan of big twists?
It’s something I’m a big fan of for sure. It’s definitely not something I’ve studied other than the way any of us have studied it: by watching films and shows that have those kinds of moments. When I first sat down to start writing Crazy, Stupid Love, I didn’t know what that was going to be about. I just started writing it. And I always thought that the Steve Carell character was going to learn the information from the Ryan Gosling character at the end of the first act. I thought it was going to be more about these two dissimilarly aged guys developing a friendship, and early on in the film one of them starts dating the other one’s daughter. And it just evolved that way. That’s kind of what happened on these two shows. I sat down to write This Is Us, for example, about a bunch of people at a similar age that I was — in their late 30s. There were all these people I recognized from my own life, and I kept thinking about how different everybody’s lives were. Some were married, some were not; some had grown children, some had no children; some were very happy professionally, others are thinking about completely restarting their careers in a different field; some people have lost parents, others have not lost even a grandparent. And so that was the starting point. The twists and reveals weren’t even something I was necessarily thinking about right off the bat.
What do you think makes a good twist?
The best kind of twists and surprises happen when you’re not just doing it for the gimmick of having a surprise. Because if you do that, you can win the battle but lose the war a little bit. The Hodor episode on Game of Thrones last season was amazing on so many levels, because not only was the actual moment of surprise completely perfectly done but it informed so much about other things and those characters that your world spun on an axis a little bit, if you were a fan of the show. Not just because Oooh, that was a surprise, but also because, Oh, wow, now I have to think about that guy and that story in a different kind of way. It’s easy to surprise people — just have characters do something you don’t expect or have someone die that you don’t expect to die and, you know, then you’ve got a twist. Hopefully at the end of This Is Us, if you like it and have had the proper experience of it, you go, Wow, the entire television series is not what I thought the television series was going to be. And that is kind of a cool thing. And hopefully at the end of Pitch, you go, Wow, I now understand this girl and what this girl was dealing with in her first start in Major League baseball, and then based on that, you see it in a completely different way. So it’s not just about the surprising twist, but hopefully it also makes sense for the rest of the show.
What are some of your favorite twists that you’ve seen either in movies or TV shows?
Like most people who are my age, you wouldn’t necessarily call it a “twist,” but I remember seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time, and at the end of one story you realized you were in the middle of another and people were intercepting and crossing and it wasn’t just oh, because that’s cool, they informed each other, they informed where you were. That was a big one for me. Around that same time, I was finishing high school, beginning college, and The Usual Suspects came out. I remember being in the movie theater for the opening weekend for that film, and this was before the internet, before Twitter, before everything could get ruined before you’d see it. You’d just heard this was a really cool movie; maybe you heard a little bit from a friend that it has a really cool ending. But you went in blind, and I remember the theater coming undone. People were going batshit crazy. And that was a very cool movie theater to be in that day. It’s harder nowadays because it’s really, really hard to pull off anything surprising. You can’t even turn on your computer without finding out who won the gold medal before you saw the Olympics. Also, audiences are super educated and informed right now. We’re almost at a point where when if you’re making television you have to ask yourself: If I do this scene saying these two people are going to end up together does the audience start expecting them to break up in the next scene because they’re so sophisticated now? You almost have to try to be aware of not only what you want to do as a storyteller, but you also want to subvert expectations to keep it surprising.
We learned at the end of This Is Us that the characters are all related and that the parents’ story line is playing out in the past. When did that development occur to you in the writing?
This Is Us started with me saying, I have all these different people in my lives and I want to explore some of them. And then I found the framing device of having them celebrating their 36th birthday on the same day. And then as I started writing, the rest of it came to me. What if one of them was X? I don’t know how it works for everybody, but it starts with what the characters are and the idea, and then if a narrative surprise exists, you find it as you’re thinking about it. It’s coincidental though. I’ve worked on a lot of different things and they don’t all have twists. I was thinking about This Is Us quite some time before I was doing Pitch, and I was originally conceiving This Is Us as a film so they came at different times and different ways and it just so happened that these two shows are coming out at the same time with these two very different kind of endings.
I was always fascinated by the bigger fabric of our lives and how our lives are informed by the lives of our parents and their parents before them. And our kids lives will be informed by them and their kids beyond them, even though some people have met and some have never met, you know, generationally. But there’s a line we use in the fifth episode of the show, which we’re filming right now, and it’s the idea that 100-some-odd years ago a man in a hat comes to this country, a person I’ve never met before, and he had a direct influence not just on my life but on who I am as a human being. And I’ve always been fascinated by that idea — to play with time and generational time. So we’re trying something really ambitious with the show moving forward into the series, really playing into that a lot and structurally jumping all over the place in these characters’ lives who are all interconnected and seeing how they become who they are. That all sounds obnoxiously intellectual. I hate that. I hate what I just said!
I understand what you mean. Will the story of the parents be told in a linear manner or are you going to jump to different points in their lives?
We jump around a lot and in a very particular order. Our writers’ room is like a war room, so I was trying to keep track of timelines and ages and things. We jump around in the Rebecca [Mandy Moore] and Jack [Milo Ventimiglia] story line a lot. I think it’s going to be a challenge for the audience, not in a bad way, but we’re going to push everyone a little bit now and hopefully totally keep the show in the same spot where it’s funny and has a lot of heart and it hits you in a good way. We want to keep it really accessible, but on a storytelling level also try aggressively different techniques that never let you just sit into the same show week in and week out.
At the end of Pitch you learn that Ginny’s father is dead and his death was traumatic. Will her dad (played by Michael Beach) still be part of the show in flashbacks and in her mind?
We love the actor, we love the relationships, and we’re going to be flashing back a lot to different story lines from Ginny’s past and eventually even from other characters’ pasts, origin stories and that kind of thing. And so, naturally, when you go into flashbacks in that way, her father is a primary figure and that’s the way he exists.
Was that something you had in mind right from the beginning of writing the pilot, or did that story evolve for you later?
No, it started with Tony Bill and Rick Singer, who co-wrote it with me. They had had these kinds of ideas initially. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do an anthemic, hopefully inspirational piece, of sports film, of the first woman to make it in Major League Baseball. That was the idea. She doesn’t have the arm strength to throw 100 miles per hour, but she’s got this other arsenal. And then as we started talking about it, that was a layer we added on to it as we started breaking what the relationships would be. So that came second.
Do you think it’s more challenging to carry off this kind of twist in the long run of a TV series versus a movie?
Well, yeah probably a little more difficult only in that in a film, if the twist works, you’re done, your story’s done. In both of these shows, when the surprise happens, the second episode shouldn’t become this unusual thing where you’ve got to now figure out what the effect of all those surprises is. You have to go past it. It’s a different kind of challenge. The challenge of a film is creating the twist and then giving it a sense of closure and ending and finality, whereas here you’re trying to now turn these series on their heads a little bit, but also keep them tonally in line. You have a different context now.