Why Tim O’Brien Agreed to Write for ‘This Is Us’
When the creators of “This Is Us” decided they wanted the third season to explore one of its key characters’ experiences in the Vietnam War, they knew they had to bring in some support. “We were determined to get it right,” according to Dan Fogelman, the show’s executive producer. The choice of whom to tap was not hard. In June 2018, NBC announced that Fogelman’s “literary hero,” Tim O’Brien, would join the show as a consultant. He ultimately took on a bigger role and joined the writing staff, according to Fogelman. O’Brien’s books about the Vietnam War have sold more than six million copies, won numerous awards and repeatedly been recognized as some of the most important works of American fiction of the 20th century. “The Things They Carried,” probably O’Brien’s most famous work, which he didn’t publish until 1990, conveyed his intimate experiences as an American draftee through haunting short stories that explore the physical and emotional baggage that the soldiers of Alpha Company carried with them in Vietnam. In many ways, his episodic, character-driven storytelling style was a natural fit for “This Is Us.”
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The series, which had its premier in September 2016, traces the lives of the Pearson family through story lines that jump between the past and present, touching on themes — race, weight, addiction — to which its loyal audience closely relates. The third season opened on Sept. 25, 2018, but it wasn’t until the fourth episode, titled “Vietnam,” that viewers got to experience O’Brien’s influence. “Vietnam” follows Jack after he enlists in the Army because his younger brother, Nicky, was drafted, and what happens once Jack finds himself in Quang Ngai Province in 1971. The episode sets off a multiepisode arc that alternates between Jack and Jack’s son, Kevin, who in the present day travels to Vietnam to learn more about his father’s service during the war. The plot achieves what O’Brien’s books are so well known for: using war as a setting for exploring the human character.
In an interview with The Times Magazine, O’Brien talked about writing for “This Is Us” and how an all-volunteer military force changed the way the American public looks at war.
What persuaded you to accept Dan Fogelman’s offer to join this season?
Well, a number of things. One is that the show is extremely well written. When I got the call, I was interested for that reason, if nothing else. Then I was told that they would be going to the Vietnam War and coming home. That was intriguing to me because so many of us believe that wars, regardless of peace treaties and the ending of hostilities, they go on and on in memory. Not only for the veterans but for the children of veterans and lovers and mothers and fathers: The repercussions go way beyond the people who actually served. I have kids, much like Jack, and I fear that my kids are dealing with the Vietnam War sometimes as much as I am. What Dan was trying to do with Nicky seemed really important and much overlooked. I just haven’t seen anything even try to deal with it, much less deal that pretty darn well.
When you approach the Nicky story line, do you go back to your books and experiences for reference material?
Like Nicky, I was reluctant to go to the war. I didn’t believe in it. I thought it was wrong. But also like Nicky, I went. What you see of Nicky is that he was beaten down by the war, smothered in blood the way I was. It wrecked him, and what he carried home was a great deal of pain. Some people are heartsick, and some people are lovesick. Warsick. That’s pretty much how I felt when I returned from the Vietnam War. Like I had a bad case of war pneumonia and haven’t been able to shake it in 50 years. Did you see the episode where Nicky and the little boy fish with hand grenades?
The very first time I met Dan and the writers, I told them a story about a group of guys fishing on the South China Sea with hand grenades. They were splashing around, the boat was full of water and one of them dropped a grenade, which exploded and killed him. The lights went on in Dan’s and the writers’ eyes. They needed an incident that wasn’t your standard bang, bang, shoot ’em up: They needed a war story off on the edges of things. And that’s not a story often told. What you saw on the show came right out of my life. It ended up not being an American soldier, but a little Vietnamese boy. There’s a point when Nicky says that the memory he’ll have the day he dies will be that boy’s mother wailing on the beach. That wailing memory is also out of my life. The grief of the civilians over dead kids and dead animals and dead husbands and brothers: They’re wailing for it all. That wail represents the incredible grief of the other that we seem to overlook in favor of veterans — it’s important for America to get a shot of that.
Does Nicky’s story line do something we haven’t seen in film or television before?
Most films focus on the suffering of the individual solder, not how it affects others. When I go silent at the dinner table with my own kids, they know what’s going on inside me. Their dad has been writing about Vietnam for 50 years. And somewhere in Orlando, Fla., there’s an old lady who wakes up at 2 o’clock in the morning every day and every night and says, “Where is my baby?” Well, her baby has been dead for 50 years, but for her that war is not over, and she is as much a casualty. In the show, Randall, Kate and Kevin are starting to deal with the pain of a silent father who slammed the door on Vietnam. That ripple effect is what interests me about what the show is trying to do.
Is it true you’re not just working on the show’s Vietnam-related material?
A little bit. Not very much. I try to cut down other appearances to make room for more Vietnam stuff, basically. I’m just kidding, but I don’t do much with other characters. Sometimes I’ll try my hand at dialogue. But as a novelist, I’m in total control of my vision and my material. I’m the director, actor and writer. But you really have to feel that you’re part of this organism called “This Is Us.” As much as you can, leave your own preferences and identity behind and be faithful to what the show is and wants to be. That was hard at first, but I really enjoyed that new way of trying to make something good.
Where does “This is Us” fit into the canon of art about war?
The answer will depend on what comes in the future. As it stands right now, only one season has been devoted to war, and of that, only a portion of the season. But the groundwork for what will follow has been laid, essentially through Nicky and Jack. “This Is Us” has demonstrated an authentic and important truth, but it’s still Act 1 of what I hope will be a 10-act play over the next couple of seasons.
Do you think the past 18 years of continuous warfare have compelled this generation of veterans to write?
I think it has. I’ve met many compatriots of yours, fellow soldiers now writing. Their concerns are not exactly mine, but they’re inexactly mine. The similarities have to do with the aftermath of it all, really — that war is war. The purpose of war is to kill people, and there are consequences to that enterprise. One way of dealing with that is through writing that has the emotional feel of what it is to bear the spiritual and emotional burdens afterward. That’s what the best of the writing coming out of my war and your wars deals with.
The main difference between our wars is the absence of a draft. Your generation of combat soldiers is a generation of volunteers. That difference is a huge one, because your generation of soldiers is bearing a much heavier burden than mine did. Anyone who doesn’t want to fight and kill people, or get killed — they don’t have to. That’s a strange predicament for a republic like ours to be in.
Do you think volunteers of these wars produce art that is distinguishable from the conscripts of the Vietnam War?
It’s subtle, but I think it does. If I were to volunteer, end up in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, then come home, I’d be asking myself, “Why the [expletive] did I do that?” At least I was able to blame L.B.J., or my hometown draft board, or Nixon. I had somebody to blame, and as sorry as that excuse would be, it still was there. A volunteer has to understand that they did this to themselves. I’ve got two students of mine who are veterans, and this is what they’re mostly writing about: the former boy who chose to do this and now lives with the consequences.
Matthew Komatsu is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a serving member of the Alaska Air National Guard.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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