Two high schoolers are testing their fledgling relationship with a day on the town, a classic start to a screen romance. But on Tuesday's "This Is Us," the carefree date in Philadelphia belongs to a boy who's a teenage dad from a blue-collar household and a girl who's been adopted from foster care into relative affluence.
The scenes and the episode (9 p.m. ET on NBC) circumvent typical network TV brushstrokes, offering a nuanced take on the African American teenagers' lives and on the cross-currents within and between black and multiracial families. Sterling K. Brown, the Emmy-winning actor who plays the girl's dad, Randall Pearson, and the show's makers are proud to share the results.
"I just love there's a sort of diaspora of African American representation," said Brown. "'This Is Us' is all about family and all about connection, and the world of the show continues to expand over the years. But it really does my heart good when, every once in a while, the show becomes very focused on the African American experience through Randall's family, through these other families that we've added to the fold, and they're not the same."
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The script was written by Kay Oyegun from an idea that series creator Dan Fogelman had been mulling. The inspiration: the chemistry between talented young actors Lyric Ross, who plays Deja Pearson, and Asante Blackk, a newcomer to the series as Malik. There's also a touch of influence from a 1995 Richard Linklater film and its 2004 sequel.
"Dan had this desire to have a sort of 'Before Sunrise'-"Before Sunset' episode essentially devoted to these two teenagers exploring Philadelphia together," Oyegun said.
Weighty themes emerged with the development of Malik's character and his place in the story, but Oyegun sees the teens' jaunt itself as remarkable. The highlights, from sampling cheesesteaks and frozen custard to contemplating sites honoring the African American experience, reflect Oyegun's familiarity with and affection for the city that became home after leaving her native Nigeria as a child.
"You get this lovely romance between these two kids that we rarely see, that kind of space for young black kids that's not surrounded by violence, that's not surrounded by hardness or pain or tragedy. It's really the simplicity of what it means to engage with someone you like, and in the most basic sense of the word," said Oyegun, a writer on "Queen Sugar" before joining "This Is Us" at its start.
Fogelman described the teens' date as emblematic of the show's effort to open a window on people who may be unknown to viewers, making them "human and real" through characters who are flawed but essentially decent. The story is minus the cliffhanger life-or-death drama (and maybe, just maybe, the trademark audience tears) of other episodes, a change-up that Fogelman sees as valuable.
"I think that this show has always operated best when the audience doesn't tune in every week to know absolutely exactly what they're going to get," he said.
"This Is Us" remains among TV's top-rated programs in its fourth year, ranking No. 5 for the season to date with nearly 12 million weekly viewers before time-shifted viewing is taken into account, according to Nielsen. It also nets the biggest increases among advertiser-favored young adults when viewership is measured over a week, NBC said.
The drama, which deftly circles among multiple characters and their past and present, laid sturdy groundwork for the episode. Randall is a businessman-turned- Philadelphia politician who, with wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) has made a comfortable, upper middle-class life for their children. Malik's parents are auto shop owner Darnell Hodges (Omar Epps) and his wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who back their son's decision to raise his baby daughter but are adamant he not limit his future.
The families meet for an awkward dinner after the teens uncharacteristically skip school. Each blames the other's child for playing hooky, but are joined in their determination to pull the youngsters apart.
In a flashback story, the young Randall's (Lonnie Chavis) exploration of his African American identity tests his white adoptive father, Milo Ventimiglia's Jack Pearson. The patriarch, who usually has answers to the challenges his offspring face, finds himself stumbling.
"Jack sees his son. He doesn't see color," Ventimiglia said. "But it's important to note that, as Randall said in a previous episode, 'If you don't see color, you don't see me.' As wonderful as it is that Jack just sees this young boy who grows into the young man that he loves ... he also comes to understand that there are things that he can't teach through experience, there's things that he can't show his son."
Making ethnicity an issue can provoke discomfort, Oyegun said, but it's an important start.
"I'll be very frank: A lot of white people feel uneasy talking about race. Black people talk about race quite often, mostly because it's something that's a part of our daily lives. I think one of the things that we wanted to do with this episode was make it OK to talk about race, was to destigmatize, normalize and begin a fluid conversation about differences, about similarities, and about where and how we can find __ not even common ground, there's just ground, right?"