Dan Fogelman says he didn’t intend to make you cry. Though as creator of the blockbuster new NBC drama This Is Us and co-creator of Fox’s groundbreaking baseball series Pitch, it wouldn’t be out of line to investigate whether the showrunner and Kleenex are in some sort of sordid cahoots.
And if you’re going to believe the guy who’s spent the last month playing your heart strings like a Spanish guitar at a flamenco competition, he’s also rather surprised that we’ve taken to weeping uncontrollably at his two fall TV creations.
“Especially with This Is Us, I never expected that was going to be the hang-on about the show, how much it was going to make people cry,” Fogelman tells The Daily Beast.
Sure, he expected people to be moved by it. That was the whole point of the series, which tells the story of a family as its members, over the course of three decades, weather heartbreak, identity crises, hopelessness, and joy. It was supposed to be a twinklingly soundtracked reflection of our own lives. Literally, this is us.
“But the ‘grab a tissue!’ thing that seems to be happening every week, it’s not something we set out do,” he says, even as the emotional chord his show is striking is scoring a bonafide ratings hit. (This week, This Is Us became the first new series in 10 years to match its premiere night viewership numbers for its third episode. That’s a lot of people crying.) “It’s not like I sit with the writers and say, ‘Hey guys, we don’t have a scene that’s going to make people cry in this episode. We need to find one!’”
In a rare turn of events in an age where it’s impossible to make anything stick, let alone have two series grab attention, Fogelman is also the co-creator of Pitch, the unprecedented collaboration with Major League Baseball that tracks the fictional career of the first professional female baseball player, Ginny Baker.
An early episode of the show cheekily references A League of Their Own, the 1992 Penny Marshall film about an all-female baseball league, by mocking Tom Hanks's classic line: “There’s no crying in baseball!” Well, thanks to a shocking plot twist at the end of the show’s first episode—a plot device also used to OMG-effect in This Is Us—there is certainly crying in Pitch.
You see, as much as Fogelman seems to be fall TV’s master of emotion, he’s also become master of the twist.
Raised in a self-described “dysfunctional Jewish family” in New Jersey, Fogelman first made a name for himself writing screenplays for the animated hits Cars, Bolt, and Tangled, perhaps explaining his talent for grounding big, colorful stories with heart and humanity.
On TV, he created two critically well-received (but short-lived) high-concept comedies: 2012’s The Neighbors, about a family that moves into a suburban neighborhood colonized by aliens (all named after famous athletes), and 2015’s Galavant, perhaps TV’s first fantasy musical fairy tale sitcom, about a dashing hero singing through his pursuit of his happily ever after. Credit them, perhaps, for his narrative ambition, and certainly inventiveness.
And his 2011 rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love—featuring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Julianne Moore in a dizzying (in the fun way) interconnected yarn—is the best example of his pre-This Is Us ability to funnel seemingly unrelated storylines into one heart-tugging plot twist.
This Is Us, for example, (SPOILER ALERT!) concludes its premiere by revealing that the angsty actor (Justin Hartley), the woman vowing to finally lose the weight (Chrissy Metz), and the man searching for his birth father (Sterling K. Brown) are not only all siblings, but the couple (Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia) we watched give birth to triplets earlier in the episode is actually their parents three decades earlier in flashbacks.
Fogelman calls it a “narrative trick hiding in plain sight”—clues are littered throughout the first hour, but the reveal makes you rethink the entire episode. The surprise at the end of Pitch, on the other hand—the father responsible for Ginny’s ascension to the Majors is actually dead—“there’s really no way you see that coming,” Fogelman says.
Now that both plot points are revealed, doing press has become a lot easier. “You sort of found yourself sounding a little bit like a politician, saying a lot of words but nothing really means anything,” Fogelman says about trying to promote his shows without spoiling them.
Especially given the advanced interest in This Is Us, the trailer for which broke viewership records when it was released this spring, he’s grateful to now be discussing content other than star Milo Ventimiglia’s mustache and butt. “Yes,” he laughs. “Exactly.”
And with the big twists out of the way, there’s much more to dig into and talk about with these shows.
Pitch’s second episode, for example, finds the press obsessed with how Ginny’s team treats her in the locker room. Watch the episode in the wake of Donald Trump’s controversial comments about women and his dismissal of them as “locker-room talk,” and delight in searing, fortuitously timed dialogue that seems to directly confront that conversation.
“I haven’t thought about it in that context, but of course,” Fogelman says when the Trump connection is brought up. The episode was written long before this was in the news, but “it’s ironic that with everything going on with Donald Trump that it’s very much in the zeitgeist,” he says.
Certainly, how the show tackles sexism was a huge consideration for him and the writers. “You want conflict in a television show, but it’s also 2016,” he says. It would be far-fetched to think that players in the locker room would have some sort of cartoonishly sexist response to a groundbreaking young woman playing for and helping their team.
In fact, he says, it’s only members of the peanut gallery who haven’t seen the show who seem to have that reaction, that it’s preposterous to think a woman could compete in the Major Leagues. “We took great pains to work with Kylie [Bunbury, who plays Ginny] to make it believable, and also explain on a baseball level how she’s operating in that world because of the physical limitations on her arm.”
But facing off with the peanut gallery is hardly a new exercise for Fogelman.
When you trade in content that is earnest, in touch with feelings, or branded that naughty word—“tearjerker”—your work tends to be written off in a pop culture landscape that seems to increasingly embrace darkness and cynicism and scoff at any ambition to warm the heart.
“It’s very easy to come after things that feel sentimental or tear-jerker, make those negative phrases,” he says. “But I feel like they’re often the best part of our art. And I feel like especially in this day and age people are looking to feel a little bit.”
Not everybody, of course, agrees. Before a second of This Is Us had premiered, it was brutally criticized by the jaded among us for whom its mission to touch the heart sent them into a sight-unseen blind rage. “There’s a part of me who will never understand the people who are vitriolic towards This Is Us,” Fogelman says. “But I don’t necessarily want to.”
Because it’s not only This Is Us, or Pitch.
ABC’s family comedy lineup, with the recent addition of Speechless, deftly toes the line between by earnestness and schmaltz. Pamela Adlon’s Better Things on FX explodes with heart. There was a time where, especially in comedy, people were nasty to each other and then…well then that was it. That was the joke, people being horrible to the ones they “love.” The pendulum seems to be swinging back now: people on TV seem to actually love the ones they love.
“We’ve just come off the debates and all the stuff that’s going on in the world, we might be all rubbed and a little raw right now,” Fogelman says. “In a way that we’re ready to release and emote and feel good and cry.” Emphasis on the cry.