'This Is Us,' the biggest new hit series in decades, gears up for Season 2

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Producer and director Ken Olin dishes about the show and working for a broadcast network.

If you’re one of those obsessed fans of NBC’s "This Is Us,"—and admit it…you are—season two returns next Tuesday. Unlike the "cooler" shows, where death and destruction, superheroes and arch villains, and blood and gore take precedence, what sets "This Is Us" apart is the relatable characters and the simplicity of the storytelling.

At a time when the future of traditional network television is marred by uncertainty, the breakout success of "This Is Us," both in audience size and critical acclaim, solidifies the value of an outlet like NBC. Reminiscent of "thirtysomething" three decades earlier, when those fresh-out-of-their-20s yuppies pondered the true meaning of life, I had the chance to talk to Ken Olin, who is now an executive producer and director on "This Is Us." Olin, who was also a behind-the-scenes force on 2006-11 ABC family drama "Brothers & Sisters," knows a thing or two about tugging on those proverbial heartstrings.

Naturally, I had to ask him about how patriarch Jack Pearson, played by Milo Ventimiglia, died. Speaking for the fans of "This Is Us," we want to know! Olin, not surprisingly, was mum on that subject, but he did hint when exactly that mystery will solved.

Here are the highlights of my conversation with "This is Us" director and producer Ken Olin.

Marc Berman: Like "thirtysomething," "This Is Us" is one of those shows that fans just can’t stop talking about. How does this experience, now as a producer and a director, compare to "thirtysomething"?

Ken Olin: "thirtysomething" was a demographic hit, never a mass appeal hit. "This Is Us" seems to have resonated with everyone, which is amazing considering that if someone had gone in and pitched this just a couple of years ago, I don’t think anyone would have been interested. The greater interest would have been in something that makes a big noise. Bang, you know. This is so not that, and yet it just struck a major chord. There is something about the complexity of the concept, even though it is rendered in such a simple way, that gives it a kind of scope I just did not anticipate.

"This Is Us" has emerged in a way that "Brothers & Sisters" and "Parenthood" never did, all good, solid shows, because those series were manufactured in some ways. "This Is Us" is also really very personal to [series creator] Dan Fogelman and an authentic expression of how he sees an experience in the world. In that way it is very similar to "thirtysomething." There is an authenticity to both shows.

In this day and age when digital is perceived as a trendier place to be, "This Is Us" was an immediate hit. Is there an advantage to being on a broadcast network?

I think what is special about "This Is Us," and it speaks to what broadcast has to offer but not always capitalizes on, is the content itself. For so long, there was a perception among creative people that you have to compromise the content of any show on a broadcast network because of the standards and practices. But if you are going to do a show that is fundamentally about people that are relatable to a mass audience, network television is the exact place to be. Where else do you have the opportunity to reach this many people?

NBC supports us 100 percent, and there is absolutely no interference.

Is there an added pressure working on a show that got this big so soon? Is there an advantage to being on a smaller show that takes more time to build?

I think we are all feeling some kind of pressure, like a freeform kind of anxiety. We have always felt the pressures of the high standards of wanting the show to be good. But we were this massive hit. I don’t think any of us ever imagined that. All we can do is make the show, do our best, and when the show comes on, it is what it is. Speaking as someone who has worked on smaller hits, the bigger the better I think, particularly in this current world with so many shows.

"thirtysomething" was one of those shows that everyone would stand around the proverbial water cooler talking about. How different is the experience doing a show now with all this social media?

What amazes me is the actual social interaction during the show. Everyone has a voice, and it is so immediate. So, that alone makes the whole experience feel so much more personal. You don’t have to wait for the reaction from the audience. It is immediate, and it gives us a report card of sorts each week on what the viewers like and what they don’t like.

Let’s talk about some show specifics. Can you shed some light on how Jack died and when we will find out?

Oh, wouldn’t you like to know! I can’t tell you that, unfortunately. But there is a good reason why we will be on after the Super Bowl.

Are we going to see the William character, who died at the end of Season One, again next season in flashbacks or dream sequences?

Ron Cephas Jones will not be in every episode, but he will remain a strong emotional presence as William. In our show, characters may die at present time, but in other time periods that are equally as immediate and emotional they are still alive. That will continue to be the framework for the show.

Outside of broadcast, the average episode order for a series is normally not over 13. But in Season One you had 18 and that still felt like it was not enough. Has NBC extended the episode order for Season Two?

No, still 18, and already a confirmed 18 for Season Three. Sometimes less is more and it keeps you hungry for more.

Is there anything next season that will shock us on "This Is Us"?
I am not sure shock is the right word. But what I can tell you is the focus will remain on the nuances of the characters and how they interact with each other, past and present, in their lives. As long as we remain true to who we are, I think the audience will be satisfied. At least I hope they will be.

Season Two of "This Is Us" begins Tuesday, September 26 at 9 p.m. ET. on NBC.