Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Dan Snierson
September 15, 2016 AT 05:50 PM EDT

This Is Us — you know, the new NBC dramedy with that turned-to-11 emotional trailer — follows a seemingly disparate group of thirtysomethings who not only share a birthday, but all find themselves at various and varied crossroads in their lives. So, where did Dan Fogelman, the Crazy, Stupid, Love. screenwriter who created the series, first draw inspiration for these sprawling yet interconnected stories? One place was from his computer screen, which reflected the sheer diversity of lives being led by people he knew.

“That initial kernel was me looking to my right, center, and left at emails and Facebook updates from friends, and I was like, ‘Holy s—, we’re all the same age and our lives could not be more different!’ ” he tells EW. “Some people have four kids, and other people are unmarried with no kids. People are at the top of their professions, some people are saying, ‘I want to make a change before it’s too late.’ People are getting divorced, people are getting married, people are losing parents, finding parents. So I thought, ‘That’s a really interesting idea to follow these people who are all the same age.’ Then I thought, ‘What if even more directly, metaphorically, they were literally exactly the same age?”

Among the many influences on the series — which will traffic in drama, comedy, and surprises — are the films of Cameron Crowe and Richard Curtis, Kramer vs. Kramer, as well as “special episodes” of TV comedies like Family Ties. “I really loved when Family Ties would make you cry,” notes Fogelman, who also created The Neighbors and Galavant, and wrote the screenplays for Tangled and Cars. “I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy. That’s interesting. This funny show can also be serious.’ And that very quickly became a thing that I was most drawn to.”

The project that was most inspirational to Fogelman, though, is Terms of Endearment. “That’s a laugh-out-loud movie, but it can get people to cry like that at the end,'” he marvels. “People had a really hard time with that moment when everyone is saying goodbye to her, her sons. But because that’s such a powerful moment, you can forget how funny and witty and charming that movie is, and how funny Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine were together, how funny Debra Winger and MacLaine were together. That’s always been the highest bar: to go into a movie theatre and hear people laughing, but then hear the sniffles at the end of it. You can do both in the same period of time with the same piece.”

This Is Us, whose cast includes Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, and Sterling K. Brown, debuts Sept. 20 at 10 p.m. on NBC. To read more about the series, pick up EW’s Fall TV Preview issue.

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