LOS ANGELES -- Jack and Rebecca. Randall, Kate and Kevin. Six seasons and a combined 23 actors playing the Pearson mom, dad and children over four jumbled decades of love, war and a fatefully malfunctioning slow cooker.
Add to that the countless tears shed by devoted fans of “This Is Us” and the oft-cited box of tissues as a standard accessory. It all comes down to one last good cry as NBC’s time-traveling family drama airs its final episode at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday.
Creator Dan Fogelman, who’d planned the show’s finite run from the start, is comfortable with his decision to leave viewers wanting more —- unusual for TV, which has no qualms in milking a popular series for all it's worth and then some.
“If we had done anything different, it would have happened because of the wrong reasons,” Fogelman said. “A lot of them are lovely reasons, because I enjoy these people so much that I work with, because the show is lucrative, because it’s so successful. But creatively, I feel we’ve done the right thing.”
The story was always complete in his imagination, to the point that he knew "what the final five minutes would look like. We knew enough that, I'd say, about half if not more, of the final episode was shot three or four years ago.”
The journey of the Pearsons and their extended circle of family and friends was as addictive, if not as edgy, as the cable and streaming dramas that operate without broadcast TV’s mandated guardrails.
“This Is Us” also excelled in its approach to diversity, making it meaningful rather than a check-the-boxes approach. The experiences of Randall — an African American who as a baby was adopted by white couple Jack and Rebecca -- were explored as fully as those of his white siblings Kate and Kevin.
Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore played opposite each other as the parents, with Sterling K. Brown as Randall, Chrissy Metz as Kate and Justin Hartley as Kevin. Other prominent cast members have included Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Sullivan and Jon Huertas.
The series' compelling writing and acting, along with its intriguing time-shifting framework, earned fan loyalty: It remained a top-rated program among network-favored young adult viewers throughout its run.
“It’s collectively really challenging for all of us to say goodbye to the show and this job," Moore said before taping wrapped. "I don't show up any day not grateful for the material. It's a dream on every single level," including the cast and crew.
“This Is Us” received a wealth of honors, including a prestigious Humanitas Prize, a Writers Guild of America award and two consecutive Screen Actors Guild awards for best ensemble cast. It drew four best drama series Emmy nods, the sole broadcast nominee in recent years amid grander and gaudier competition such as Netflix's “The Crown,” HBO's “Game of Thrones” and Hulu's “The Handmaid's Tale.”
The NBC show's stars and guest actors received multiple Emmy nominations, with Brown, Gerald McRaney and Ron Cephas Jones winning Emmys — two for Jones in the role of William Hill, birth father to Brown's Randall.
William was part of the second-to-last-episode that aired May 17 and followed the Pearson matriarch through the final stages of dementia.
As imagined in Rebecca's minds-eye, William gently shepherds a young and glowing version of her through train cars for encounters with loved ones, scenes that are interspersed with family members saying their farewells to the frail, bedridden older woman.
The railroad metaphor was not in Fogelman's original plan. Instead, he said it was proposed by writer K.J. Steinberg, who had someone in her life with a form of dementia and who spoke of being on a train ride.
“K.J. said, ‘I have a kind of crazy idea, bear with me for a moment,” Fogelman said.
The result is surreal but not out of character for a show that's thrived on challenging its audience — most notably with the time jumps that create mysteries, such as Jack's premature death that went long and maddeningly unexplained. (It was heroic, saving his family in a house fire started by the above-mentioned kitchen item.)
“There were these kind of watercooler moments early in the show that were, frankly, a little unexpected," Fogelman said. As the show kept “throwing to the future,” as he put it, viewers continued to thirst for answers — about Kate and Toby's divorce, Kevin's forever love and other loose ends.
Fogelman is circumspect about finale details but suggested it's the opposite of shocking given how much has been resolved for the characters.
“The goal of the ending was always to just sit with this family in the simplest of ways," he said. "Where there's not that many questions left, and you can sit and enjoy almost the equivalent of found footage of a family, combined with a very meditative day."
Moore was asked whether the Pearson saga could one day be resumed, perhaps as a spin-off or a movie a la “Downton Abbey.” That's hard to imagine given Fogelman’s determination to end it as planned, she said.
“We’re really grateful that we’re able to do that and honor that,” Moore said. “I feel like the audience will be incredibly satisfied with how things are wrapped up.”