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3 Black writers discuss some of the themes on NBC's 'This Is Us'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tonight, you can catch a new episode of NBC's hit drama "This Is Us." This is the show's sixth and final season. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans helps us kick off Black History Month by sharing his conversation with three Black writers from the series.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Kay Oyegun remembers the moment when she understood just how different a TV drama "This Is Us" would be. Early in the show's development, writers pitched creator Dan Fogelman ideas about William, biological father to Sterling K. Brown's character, Randall Pearson. Oyegun suggested making William a con man. Fogelman had a different idea.

KAY OYEGUN: Dan sat there and listened to all of our pitches. And then he was like, OK, what if he's just an old man who had a really hard life, who just wants to get to know his son? And I was like - in that moment, I was like, well, get the out of here.

DEGGANS: In other words, the drama on "This Is Us" comes from small moments between characters living everyday lives. "This Is Us" centers on three siblings, twins Kevin and Kate and adopted son Randall, along with mom Rebecca and dad Jack. The show slips back and forth in time, showing the characters at different ages in different years. Oyegun has been with the show since 2016 and now serves as an executive producer/director. She's been central to writing many of the show's unique scenes dealing with race, often centered on Randall Pearson, a Black child adopted into the white Pearson family as a baby. I told her that Randall's journey seems unique because he's chosen to be Black in a way, seeking out his biological parents and raising a Black family. Oyegun says Randall was also so well-rounded because creator Fogelman put a lot of himself into the character.

OYEGUN: Randall's character, you know, is written from a place of real compassion and a place of real sort of, like, identification. He's not like, oh, here's this Black character who I have to now put these things onto you. It's like, no, he sees the character very much as himself.

DEGGANS: Back in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Oyegun wrote a scene where Randall tried to explain to Kate, played by Chrissy Metz, his yearslong, silent struggle with the trauma of seeing Black people killed by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

STERLING K BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) Growing up, I just had to keep so many things to myself because I didn't want you to have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

CHRISSY METZ: (As Kate Pearson) Well, you're right. I mean, we never talked about it as kids, and

BROWN: (As Randall Pearson) And normally, I would hug you. I would try to make it all OK for you. But if I did that, Kate, then where does that leave me?

DEGGANS: Eboni Freeman, a co-producer on the show, says the scene captured how tough it was for some Black people to talk about Floyd's death, inspired by tough conversations they were having in the writers room.

EBONI FREEMAN: It was just a really interesting conversation to have, but also a conversation I think a lot of people related to because it was something that they were doing at the same time with their White co-workers, White friends and all that stuff.

DEGGANS: Freeman wrote a script for the third season called "Our Little Island Girl." In one of those scenes which often brings tears from fans, Randall's wife, Beth, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, hears her mother, Carol, played by Phylicia Rashad, apologize for making her abandon dreams of being a ballerina.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

PHYLICIA RASHAD: (As Carol Clarke) Bethany, I don't know if I made the right decision for you, but I didn't have time to question myself. Your father was gone. I just had me and my worries, wanting my last child to be OK - our little island girl who danced before she could walk.

FREEMAN: I remember that day on set, just sitting there watching and being like, this is crazy that they're saying these words that I wrote. And it was just beautiful.

DEGGANS: Freeman was nominated for a Humanitas Prize and a Writers Guild Award for that script. Writer Jon Dorsey remembered a moment during the production of a script he wrote from season four, where he, the director and several other people were gathered in front of video monitors. Co-star Watson was shocked.

JON DORSEY: And she did a double take and then stopped and came back and took a picture because she was super shocked that it was filled with just Black people. And it's so rare that Susan had to, you know, backtrack, moonwalk back into the area and take a picture of it.

DEGGANS: Oyegun credits the show's top boss, creator Fogelman, who hired a diversity of people and then let them create.

OYEGUN: I think that having a boss who is receptive to the people he hires and who he or she hires is the model to follow, as opposed to a boss who is like, la, la, la, la, I know everything.

DEGGANS: As "This Is Us" ends its final season, here's hoping these writers put the lessons learned there to use creating their own hit shows. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIDDHARTHA KHOSLA'S "JACK'S THEME [THREE SENTENCES]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.