This Is Us had some new tricks up its sleeve for the premiere of season four.
While we did follow Jack and Rebecca's return from California and see Jack meet both Miguel and Rebecca's family for the first time, most of the episode was spent with three other storylines: an Army vet coming home, a teen dad balancing school and his baby daughter, and a blind singer falling in love with a waitress.
Of course, they all ended up connected to the Pearsons in one way or another, and while it took a little while to figure out why we cared about these new people, those connections set up some intriguing new stories for the season.
First, the big one.
We met the blind singer first when he woke up in the morning fully naked, with his butt in full view (this show likes butts in premieres!). He was eating breakfast, and tried to feed some to his fluffy puppy, but then he dropped and broke the plate.
That sent him to a diner for breakfast instead, where he met waitress Lucy. We watched them all in love, and get engaged, and we saw that she was opening a restaurant while his music career was getting off the ground. Just after Lucy revealed she was pregnant and he was about to go on stage, we cut back to Kate and Toby, who were getting confirmation that their baby Jack was blind.
Then, 30ish years in the future, Jack Damon was introduced on stage.
Dan Fogelman told reporters on Tuesday via a conference call that while visiting that far into the future very often "presents production challenges," we will likely be seeing more of this Jack than they originally intended.
"Right now we're telling stories in the beginning half of this season that focus a little more on the present day stories, but it is a place we're heading towards again, multiple times, especially because we had an experience with the young man who was acting on camera literally for the first time in his entire life. That was so rewarding for us, and we fell so in love with the actor that sometimes those things happen, and the parts get even bigger than you were planning on making them."
That actor is Blake Stadnik, who is legally blind in real life, and has never acted anywhere other than on stage. Fogelman says they always knew that young Jack would be blind (which very commonly goes with being born prematurely) and wanted to cast a blind actor, and the casting process started very early, in the show's off season.
"I was worried about it. I was looking for a leading man who was without sight and could be funny and charming but also accessible and sweet. You're looking for a leading man without a lot of time," he explained, and while the casting department found many actors, "Blake, when he came to us, was clearly our guy."
"He's a musical theater actor...he was actually in a local production, I believe in Colorado, that we had to kind of try and get him out of in order to shoot the show," Fogelman continued. "But he had never acted on camera before. He had been a trained actor and he had done a lot of musical theater and he could sing, which was another massive quality that made the search impossible."
Stadnik had an awful lot to do on just his first day.
"We wanted to find an actor who could be a leading man and very handsome and very funny and look great with his bare ass on national television, but also be able to go stand in the Greek in front of a live audience and actually perform a song. So there were a lot of boxes to check, and Blake's first day of shooting was literally lying completely naked in the bed and then having like a six hour makeout with the young woman opposite him, and then go on stage at the Greek in front of thousands of people during an intermission of a concert to perform a song. And so it was quite a trial by fire for him and he just kind of blew us away in every possible way," Fogelman says.
We've heard about an older version of Kate and Toby's son Jack before, during the flashforward to Rebecca's illness. Fogelman said that Jack was about 12 then, so now we've gone far beyond the future we had seen before, and beyond what Fogelman has said is sort of the endgame for the Pearson family.
"For right now, we're going to give a lot of answers there this season, is basically teh most I can say, especially by the end of the front half of the season. Right now, by having shown the full end game of where we are without giving all the details, we've kind of set ourselves up to start the slow process of telling the story of how we get there. So this is one that will be very answered in this season, even in the first half and two thirds of the season, to set us up for some bigger leaps in some more time in the future as we get a little deeper into this season.
He revealed that they have the show broken up into two three-season plans, and now that they know where the endgame is, the fun is in filling in the details.
Some of those details have to do with a few other new people we met tonight, including Jennifer Morrison's character, an Army vet who reunites with her husband and son, only to then get kicked out of the house when she gets upset at the idea that a water heater costs the same amount of money that the Army hands to victims of bombings and accidentally hits her son.
Later, we see her at a veteran support group, explaining how her drinking had become a problem as a chair comes flying through the window, with Nicky standing outside. We then see Kevin get a phone call, because Nicky needed bailed out, and now Kevin's on his way to help his uncle (and maybe meet a new friend?).
In Philly, a teen dad (Asante Blackk) was struggling with being a teen and also being a dad, until his own dad (Omar Epps) advised him that his life wasn't over and he could still do things, like go to his friend's barbecue. At that barbecue, a friend introduced him to somebody new, named Deja, who later got home from the barbecue with a huge smile on her face.
Fogelman says all of these new characters are framed as characters "who are going to have massive impacts on our main family's lives."
"They're massive parts of this season. They're not just in a one-off episode...it's going to go far beyond that," he explains. "And it's a slow build. And part of the intent here was to establish these characters so that you met them kind of pure and outside the purview of the Pearson family, and then now you really are kind of inside these characters' stories, and you know them, and now we slowly start building into their worlds and see how they affect and change [the Pearsons'] lives. Jennifer and Asante, they're huge parts of this storyline this season."
Fogelman says it was always part of the plan to do an episode like this, that focused on these other characters, because it's how real life works too.
"I've always been fascinated with the idea that we can all go about our lives for 10, 20, 30, 40 years and there's a person who will enter your life via work, or you'll meet them at a bar or a coffee shop and you'll end up marrying that person or working with that person for the next 30 years, or that person will hit you in a car accident and that will kind of alter the course of your life," he says. "So I've always wanted for this show in particular to go in the middle of the series to these new people who haven't been a part of our tory yet, really spend the time to get inside of their worlds a little bit, and then say, OK, that's going to be an interesting person to cross with one of our beloved characters at that moment in their lives."
Next week, Fogelman promises, the show is going back to its "comfort food," but he hopes viewers will see how the end of the episode sends the show in a "really exciting direction" for season four.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
E! and NBC are both part of the NBC Universal family.