"The first draft of pandemic programming is over," says Kevin Fallon. "Shows that were scripted during the start of lockdown, filmed through Zoom videos, or self-shot in performers’ homes documented the first, often awkward, subjectively unpleasant attempts at dramatizing these unprecedented times for TV. Love in the Time of Corona, Coastal Elites, Connecting…, and Social Distance were admirable, if uneven experiments. Those efforts strived to bottle the lightning storm of emotions and fears of those first spring months but were unable to keep up with the pace and escalation of it all, often becoming either quaint or pandering. But now we have TV shows back in production on actual sets. We have long-running, beloved series returning, forced to reckon with how the pandemic would alter the lives of the characters we’ve followed and loved. COVID is scheduled to factor into a slew of returning fall TV series, including Grey’s Anatomy and Superstore, both of which will chronicle how essential workers are affected by it. And This Is Us might be the first big fan-favorite to come back with the coronavirus as a major character." Last night's two-hour premiere, says Fallon, "speeds through the naivete of character’s attitudes in the first few months of the pandemic, bumbles its way through over-explaining social distancing protocols that allow the family to be together, and eventually calls out a veritable BINGO card of traumas from the seven months since the series last aired... That said, there is something tangibly different about seeing COVID introduced to a series that already existed, rather than watching one of those new shows centered around it. It may even be more palatable. One consequence of these last seven months of separation from loved ones, not to mention the pall of disease and death, is that people are thinking more about family: how much they miss them, and how memories are having to stand in for actual time together. There is something undeniably emotional, then, of watching those very things mirrored in the Pearsons."
Sterling K. Brown shined portraying Randall dealing with the pandemic and the George Floyd killing: "Sometimes the simplest sentiments carry the greatest impact," says Ben Travers. "In the Season 5 premiere of This Is Us — a dense two hours of pre-planned drama adjusted to include two of 2020’s worst tragedies — six words carry more relatable depth than the thousands around them. 'I’m just really, really, really sad.' I mean, 2020 right? It’s no surprise such a choice remark comes from Randall Pearson, the long-reigning MVP of This Is Us so beautifully embodied by Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. But it is a bit of a surprise how effortlessly his admission cuts through the many, many issues Randall’s tasked with in the season premiere. Both episodes run virtually all their storylines through Randall, and it’s amazing how well both the character and performer are able to distill them into an affecting encapsulation of our collective 2020 mood. We are sad, some of us more than others, and This Is Us distinguishes why quite well."
This Is Us incorporating the pandemic looked like a bad idea that ended up working: "Do we want our TV shows to embrace the chance to deliver COVID verisimilitude or are we longing for escapism?" says Caroline Siede. "This Is Us, of course, is uniquely poised to offer both. While the Big Three must deal with the realities of COVID as they prepare to turn 40, the flashbacks still offer a sense of normalcy—a world where people can hug and share indoor space sans masks. Though my immediate instinct was that the show should’ve just ignored COVID entirely, this episode handles the pandemic far more gracefully than I would’ve thought possible."
This Is Us writers had long conversations on how to incorporate the pandemic: “Early on, when we began to have these conversations, so much was happening at such an intense level,” says Kay Oyegun, who co-wrote the premiere. “I know that I was a very vocal advocate of not touching what we had already laid out. I was sending Dan (Fogelman) emails after the room was done being like, ‘I don’t know about this.’ But those were the early conversations: how to do it, how to do it with honesty, how to do it through the point of view of the characters onscreen, as opposed to the world at large."
Sterling K. Brown on the Season 5 premiere: “It’s such a unique perspective to for someone like Randall, who’s always sort of questioning his identity as it is, but never wavering from the fact that he knows that he is Black. But the way in which he was raised and the conversations that happened in his house are not necessarily representative of the conversations that he wants to have with his children, by virtue of what didn’t happen.”