Guess who's coming to dinner on This Is Us. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Tuesday's episode, titled "The Dinner and the Date," featured two dinner scenes that aim to spark conversations about race in America. Set in different timelines, both feature Randall, a Black character played by Sterling K. Brown in the present day and Lonnie Chavis in flashbacks.
In the first timeline, set around 1990, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), invites his adopted son's teacher, Mr. Reynolds (Brandon Scott), and his wife to dine with his family. Jack feels insecure that Randall looks up to Reynolds, who has stepped in to mentor the boy as a Black person in a predominantly white educational space. The meal simmers with Jack's resentment — and a few snide remarks — rooted in his feelings of inadequacy of being unable to provide his son access to Black culture.
At the second dinner, it is Randall, now an adult, who invites the parents of his adopted teenage daughter Deja's (Lyric Ross) romantic interest, Malik (Asante Blackk, When They See Us). Malik, 16, is the father of a 6-month-old, and Randall and his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), worry about the budding relationship after the pair skip school together.
Each dinner tackles the issue of race from a different perspective. The first depicts interracial relationships from the points of view of a parent, a child, and an educator. The second features a clash between two Black families who come from different classes. NBC has billed it as "the episode you cannot miss" and even held a special screening and Q&A with the showrunner, writer, and cast members Monday at the London in West Hollywood to discuss it.
Much of this conversation was a discussion over the moral authority within the different (often heated) clashes that occurred over the dinner table. "The interesting about it was, no one was right," said Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, who moderated the event. Barris even pushed back after Ventimiglia declared his character's behavior "wrong"; he called it "human" instead.
While Jack may have behaved rudely to his guests, Reynolds may also have overstepped his role as an educator. The issue of the blurring line between wrong versus right was summed up in the final interaction between the men after the dinner. “This wasn’t my best night tonight," Jack admitted. To which Reynolds replied, “It wasn’t mine either.”
Dan Fogelman, creator and showrunner of This Is Us, said the writers' room weighed excising Reynolds's line. "We had big debates of, is the teacher behaving as badly as Jack in this episode? And then we decided to leave it in," he said.
Jack and Reynolds were not the only ones wrestling with the dubious dinner decisions of their characters. Kelechi Watson admitted that she initially thought her character was "wrong" for judging a teenage father, but noted how parents behave differently — and sometimes, irrationally — when it comes to their children. "I’m the caretaker of this person," she said of Deja. "I have to assume from all angles that everything will go wrong."
"As parents, we lead with equal parts fear and love. Most of the time, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing," she continued. "It’s just a truth in parenting … the flaws that we feel as parents and the fear and the constant questioning of, Am I doing the right thing?"
Barris himself acknowledged his ambivalence over the situation presented to the modern-day parents in This Is Us. "I come from both sides. I grew up in Inglewood [a Los Angeles suburb with a large Black population]. I remember coming in and the lights were off. But I’ll be honest with you, if one of my daughters came in and was like, 'This is my boyfriend, he has a kid,' I’m like, 'No, it’s not,'" he said, to the laughter of the crowd. "It’s my favorite form of writing, where there’s no right or wrong."
As intense as some of the encounters at the dinner table were, though — in particular, Randall and Beth go head to head with Malik's parents (Omar Epps and Marsha Stephanie Blake) — the version showed to the audience on network television was "muted" in comparison to several takes that were filmed by director Ken Olin, according to Brown.
When asked by Barris why This Is Us chose to air the "muted" scenes versus the more intense portrayals of the clashes, Fogelman explained that the decision was made collectively by the writers' room. He also took the stamp of approval from Kay Oyegun, the episode's primary writer, into account.
“I was looking at the takes, and wanted to make sure that in an episode that was as specific and special as this, I wasn’t doing anything ‘wrong’ as the showrunner," said Fogelman, adding, "You can’t be overly careful. These are flawed, real characters. We’re dealing with race and I’m a white dude and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t taking anything too far."
Oyegun explained that it is the goal of the This Is Us writers' room to resist racial tropes, and it was the version that made it to air that felt the most authentic to the characters.
"One of the knee-jerk reactions is to paint Black people, specifically, as villain or saint. And one of the things that we try to do is play this as normal. And in that moment, [the characters] were being who they were," she said. "One of the things that I said ... we don’t need to sanitize it. If that’s where they wanted to go, that’s where they wanted to go. So that was the conversation that was being had."
While the two dinners may make up the most airtime on Tuesday, it is the date between Deja and Malik — seen through flashbacks — that takes the cake. As their parents argue over the potential of "bad influences," viewers see their romantic story unfold as they skip school to tour the hidden-gem sights of Philadelphia.
"Kay, you’ve done something incredibly subversive and amazing here," the showrunner told his writer about the love story between a 16-year-old father and an adopted child. The cast agreed. Brown compared the coming-of-age story to watching Kevin and Winnie from The Wonder Years. Blackk praised multiple times how the storyline was composed "masterfully."
In fact, Fogelman was so in love with Deja and Malik's story that he initially wanted eight episodes of This Is Us devoted to it. “That won’t work," Oyegun told him, after another knock on his door.
But that didn't stop Fogelman's praise. "There’s no dramatic story here. You’re just watching a slice of life of young nostalgic love that everybody in this room can relate to," said Fogelman, who compared the story to Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater's classic about two strangers who fall in love over the course of a day. "I remember when I was in love in that kind of way."
Miss the episode? Watch a teaser below.