While women writers struggle for parity on American stages, television series have been hiring them. Six of the eleven writers on NBC’s hit night time drama This Is Us are women. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, whose Oregon Trail was produced by Flying V in the first Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is writer/producer for the series that, if last week’s audience is any guage, will have 11+ million viewers tuned in to tonight’s Season 1 finale to follow the stories of 36 year old siblings Randall, Kate and Kevin.
Bekah has worked on television series before. We asked her why she thinks this one is such a major breakout.
“It’s universal storytelling, it’s about family and it gets romantic. It’s also about race and obesity and adoption without being preachy.” I suggested it’s also a quiet retreat from the violence of small screen dramas. No one’s car gets blown up. No one gets shot. “Yes, it’s about finding the smaller, quieter things.”
Those quieter things are often found by listening to personal stories from people whose lives parallel the characters’. For one recurring element in the show, they spoke with a lot of black people who were adopted by white families. The first two weeks in the writers’ room, everyone shared their own family stories.
Unexpectedly for a family drama perhaps, men are fans of the show. “It’s created by a man who cares about his male characters. My husband said he’s glad the men don’t do the stereo/horrible things. Dan [Fogelman, the show’s creator,] wants the men to be real, funny and good guys. Men think ‘I want to be a good dad like that. I want to be a good brother.’”
The character the show gets the most questions about is the siblings’ father, Jack, whose life and death is still unspooling.
Fogelman created the unusual concept of following the stories of the children, their parents and those whose lives are touched by them through a well-orchestrated weave of past and present. He had just turned 36 – the age the siblings are when we meet them – when he began thinking about the show. “Life gets serious about then, things have happened,” he explained on the series’ first aftertalk . “You’re dangerously close to mid-life.”
Those 36 years span three decades of cultural shifts in America, and creating the reality of the times through sets, costumes and makeup helps the audience stay grounded in the flashbacks. “The designers are all very talented and take care about keeping the look very real. We have a lot of production meetings where all the details get discussed at great length,”, Bekah said.
Any theatrelover will appreciate the exceptionally high level of writing and acting. A treasured book gets handed to someone in Episode 3, who reads it to someone, who shares it with his wife and, by Episode 7, it becomes a major plot point.
In one of its funniest scenes, Kevin, a sit-com super star who ditches it all for the dim lights of Off-Broadway, has an audition that will give actors nightmares. In another more dramatic episode, we see Kate’s overweight fiancee, Toby, pinched tight in his airplane seat, arrive slightly breathless at a Christmas gathering, break out in a sweat while descending stairs, and crash into a glass table. And in the biggest cliff hanger so far, which had fans fearing the worst, his hand goes limp as heart monitors signal surgeons that their patient is in trouble.
That actor, Chris Sullivan (Hadestown), is one of several stage actors working on the show. “I guess we gravitate to them; they are spontaneous and make specific choices about their characters,” Bekah said. It often works out better than you’d imagine as seen in one deftly-improvised scene between Sterling K. Brown (Macbeth) and Ron Cephas Jones (Of Mice and Men) in a Memphis barbershop. Jones’ daughter Jasmine Cephas Jones, by the way, just came out of the cast of Hamilton).
About her Producer credit: “Some people think – Oh my God, you’re running the show! My title is producer, but there are many, many executive producers over me. As you ascend the ranks as a TV writer, you start as a staff writer, then story editor, then producer. Producer means different things on different shows. For us it means, I’m on set, watching auditions, doing rewrites, wherever they’re needed.”
When asked for her most memorable moment, the first to come to mind was: “Every time we came into work the day after an episode aired, and saw the numbers, we were thrilled, of course but thought – WHAT is HAPPENING!” “It never really got into our creative process, because we had written so many episodes before the series aired.”
NBC’s initial buy was for 13 episodes. As the show gained popularity, the network bought another 5 to complete the season, and now has committed to 18 episodes each for Seasons 2 and 3. That’s a lot of storytelling. I asked how far they thought they could extend the show. “We’re talking about that now,” she replied.
In closing, I asked how the show has changed her life, expecting something about money or career. Instead, she gave a very personal answer: “Working on the show has made me pay more attention to people when they’re talking about their family, value my own family and have a new awareness of white privilege and unconscious bias and being black in America, things I knew intellectually, but hadn’t spent much time thinking about.”
The last episode of This Is Us, Season 1, airs Tuesday, March 14th. Watch then, or catch up with all the episodes and their aftertalks on NBC. The writers begin work again in May. This Is Us returns next fall in NBC’s September/October slot.