'This Is Us' takes on race, class and teen love

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LOS ANGELES — Two high schoolers are testing their fledgling relationship with a day on the town, a classic start to a screen romance. But on Tuesday's "This Is Us," the carefree date in Philadelphia belonged to a boy who's a teenage dad from a blue-collar household and a girl who's been adopted from foster care into relative affluence.

The scenes and Tuesday's episode circumvented typical network TV brushstrokes, offering a nuanced take on the African American teenagers' lives and on the cross-currents within and between black and multiracial families. Sterling K. Brown, the Emmy-winning actor who plays the girl's dad, Randall Pearson, and the show's makers are proud to share the results.

"I just love there's a sort of diaspora of African American representation," said Brown. "'This Is Us' is all about family and all about connection, and the world of the show continues to expand over the years. But it really does my heart good when, every once in a while, the show becomes very focused on the African American experience through Randall's family, through these other families that we've added to the fold, and they're not the same."

The script was written by Kay Oyegun from an idea that series creator Dan Fogelman had been mulling. The inspiration: the chemistry between talented young actors Lyric Ross, who plays Deja Pearson, and Asante Blackk, a newcomer to the series as Malik. There's also a touch of influence from a 1995 Richard Linklater film and its 2004 sequel.

"Dan had this desire to have a sort of 'Before Sunrise'-"Before Sunset' episode essentially devoted to these two teenagers exploring Philadelphia together," Oyegun said.

Weighty themes emerged with the development of Malik's character and his place in the story, but Oyegun sees the teens' jaunt itself as remarkable. The highlights, from sampling cheesesteaks and frozen custard to contemplating sites honoring the African American experience, reflect Oyegun's familiarity with and affection for the city that became home after leaving her native Nigeria as a child.

"You get this lovely romance between these two kids that we rarely see, that kind of space for young black kids that's not surrounded by violence, that's not surrounded by hardness or pain or tragedy. It's really the simplicity of what it means to engage with someone you like, and in the most basic sense of the word," said Oyegun, a writer on "Queen Sugar" before joining "This Is Us" at its start.

Fogelman described the teens' date as emblematic of the show's effort to open a window on people who may be unknown to viewers, making them "human and real" through characters who are flawed but essentially decent. The story is minus the cliffhanger life-or-death drama (and maybe, just maybe, the trademark audience tears) of other episodes, a change-up that Fogelman sees as valuable.

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