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[This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of ABC’s A Million Little Things.]
ABC’s new fall drama A Million Little Things has drawn well-justified comparisons to NBC breakout This Is Us — flashbacks, mysteries and emotional monologues abound in this ensemble about a group of friends reeling after a death — but its inciting incident is significantly darker than anything viewers have seen from the Pearsons.
In the opening moments of Wednesday’s pilot episode, Jon (Ron Livingston), an affable and successful guy who is later revealed to be the glue of his friendship group, abruptly takes his own life. In the style of The Big Chill, his death leaves behind painful unanswered questions for his friends (played by Romany Malco, Allison Miller, David Giuntoli, Christina Moses, Christina Ochoa, James Roday, Stephanie Szostak and Lizzy Greene). Arguably the most affected is Malco’s Rome, who was on the brink of committing suicide himself before getting the news, and is forced in the aftermath to re-evaluate his own depression.
Below, creator and executive producer DJ Nash (Up All Night, Growing Up Fisher, Guys With Kids) talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how he and his writers navigate the subject of suicide, what he owes to This Is Us and where his show goes next.
The idea for the show came out of a personal experience. Can you expand on that?
A few years ago I was working on a gig — the first of my career, and it was not a great fit, so I would take these walks at lunch just to try and psych myself up for the afternoon. On one of these lunchtime walks, I ran into a buddy of mine, and we both lit up: “Hey dude, this is great, we should have lunch!” It wasn’t an L.A. bullshit thing, we both really meant it. He said, “I’m really busy this week, but how about next week?” I said, “Yes, we’re doing it!” And then he killed himself.
It was shocking. We weren’t as close as the guys in the show are, but his death had such an impact on me, because our lives were so similar on paper, and I just couldn’t understand how our endings were so different. I remember being at the funeral, thinking about JFK Jr. on the airplane and how he’d lost sight of the horizon — that speech, which Maggie (Miller) gives in the middle of our pilot, wasn’t actually written for our show. I wrote it a few years ago, just to try and understand how I had lost my friend. Those couple of years after his death were so formative for me, and I thought it was an interesting idea for a show: a group of friends whose lives are forever changed after the friend whose life is the most together, on paper, takes his own life. To me, the show is really about Rome, who almost did something, almost took his life, and instead reaches out for help and makes a change.
Will Rome continue to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts through the season?
With Rome’s depression, as with all of these subjects, authenticity is our priority. With Rome, the plan is to look at a guy who, in the pilot, is attending a funeral that could have been his own. In episode two he’s walking in Jon’s footsteps, trying to find any way in which they’re different, and struggling because he can’t find it. We’ll continue to track that journey, and there will be highs and lows, because in depression there are periods of time where you feel like you’re OK, and there’s times when you’re suddenly not.
How much difference has the success of This Is Us made to A Million Little Things?
All the difference in the world. I had multiple networks trying to get this project, and I think while our show is unbelievably different — if only because it’s about friendship versus family — what Dan [Fogelman, the creator of This Is Us] and the team did over there, there is no question that they have brought back an appetite for shows like this. In the same way Brothers & Sisters helped Parenthood, there’s just a way in which our show was definitely helped by the marketplace. Definitely, a huge tip of the hat to the gang over at This Is Us.
The pilot has the characters trying to understand why Jon took his life, and there are a few plot points introduced that might be considered clues. How much of the season will be taken up with that mystery of the “why”?
Going back to that authenticity idea: You never know exactly why. We’re running a PSA after the pilot episode with Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park, and Chester Bennington’s wife Talinda, and hearing from them, along with a number of stories from friends of mine and people who our consultant put me in touch with, that’s what you realize. There may be a straw that broke the camel’s back, but there were tons of other straws on the camel’s back beforehand, and you just never know exactly why. But the mystery and the “why” are two different things on our show. We will, at the end of the season, discover an event that changed Jon, but whether or not that was the reason he ultimately did what he did … I think it’s sort of a perfect storm that happens.
13 Reasons Why, another recent show that used suicide as its inciting incident, has faced accusations that it glamorized the subject. Were you aware of the response to that show as you developed A Million Little Things?
I can’t speak to other shows, but I will say that our show comes from a very real place. What we were trying to do here absolutely is not to glamorize suicide, and if anything, it’s a cautionary tale told through Rome, who gets to have a second chance. With regard to backlash, we have a consultant who I work with on all of these subjects, there are writers in our room both who deal with depression, and who have lost siblings to suicide. I asked for a warning to be put at the top of the show, and ABC was very respective to that. And after the events of the past six months, with public figures taking their own lives, I remember at 7:45 in the morning I emailed Channing [Dungey, ABC Entertainment president] to say, “Hey, I wrote this PSA, take a look, I can probably get my friend Mike and Chester’s wife Talinda to do it,” and she responded within 30 minutes. It airs after the pilot, and they didn’t take time out of the show to air it, which is huge. So, by no means do we want to glamorize it; we want to make people aware of a topic that has been silent for too long.
Who is your consultant?
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, she’s incredible, and I met her through Mike. He and I and our wives, the four of us went out to the Hollywood Bowl, because I wanted him to have a night where he wasn’t thinking about [Bennington’s death], and he asked me what I was working on this year, which of course brought the topic right back up. But he put me in touch with Barbara, a psychologist and the founder of this organization called Give an Hour, which she started in response to 9/11, trying to give people an hour of therapy should they need it. She’s very well-versed in depression and suicide and some of the other mental health issues that have come up on our show, and I call her when I’m thinking of an area, I have her see outlines, she’s looking at early cuts of the show, and she’s just an incredible resource. I’ve talked to her extensively about Jon and his backstory and what we’re driving to this season, and about Rome and what he’s struggling with, and Regina (Moses), Rome’s wife, and how she’s going to help him through this, and Delilah (Szostak), Jon’s widow, how she can be there for her family and be a mom in that situation.
How much of a presence will Ron Livingston be in the show going forward, especially as he stars on his own Audience Network show, Loudermilk?
He’s in quite a few episodes in our first order, and there are certain episodes where it’s actually better to not have him there so that you feel his absence. For instance, Jon was so crucial and helpful to Gary (Roday) as he was going through chemo in the past, so I’m writing an episode right now where we tell that story. I love Ron, and he’s been so respectful of the show — he had to carry a lot of secrets because he needed to know certain things so that he knew how to play it. I would personally love to have him for as much as we can, but he has another show that he’s doing. I think probably he’ll be more featured in the first season, as that’s the season where we’re saying goodbye to Jon, and then in subsequent seasons we’ll see what his schedule will allow.
What will the rest of season one look like? Do you have a longer-term plan for the show?
This is a true ensemble, and while in the pilot we lean a little bit more on the guys, that will change. I think Catherine [Grace Park, who replaced Anne Son as the wife to David Giuntoli’s Eddie] is in three scenes in the pilot, and in episode three, she returns as the MVP of that episode, where we really come to understand her plight as a working mom. More generally, the first season is about saying goodbye to Jon, and at the end of this season, some of the things his death brings out will make it pretty clear where we’re going for the second season. I’ve talked to Channing and the network about how I would end season two, so we’re making sure that the stories we’re telling are part of a larger arc. I know what the series finale is, and so I know what we’re building toward at each point.
Casting on an ensemble is always challenging. What was the first role you cast, and were any actors harder to cast?
I had worked with Romany two years ago [on 2012 pilot Let It Go], so I wrote this with the idea that he would play Rome, which is why the names are really close. The show oscillates between funny and dramatic, and Rome masks his depression with humor, and Romany can do that on a dime. We had dinner, and I told him I was going to send him a script and admitted that in the script, [the description of Rome] said “think Romany Malco.” On the flip side, there’s people like James Roday who I didn’t know beforehand, and I now can’t imagine anyone else playing Gary. When I met with him, he came in wearing flip-flops, and when I told him about my friend who took his own life before we could have lunch, he looked at me for a beat, and said, “Wow, he really didn’t want to have lunch with you.” This guy who I’d met a few second earlier, doing this completely inappropriate, disarming joke, and I thought: That’s Gary!
In terms of casting, the race of these characters is very relevant, because we’re looking at how depression is different in the African-American community. It was essential to me that both Rome and Regina be African-American, and because it feels like Rome is not allowed to acknowledge his depression, that’s why he reaches out to Maggie, a Caucasian character. I knew I wanted Jon to be Caucasian, and with Grace Park’s character Katherine, selfishly as someone who’s married to a Korean woman, I wanted to tell the story of a Korean woman in our show. Some shows cast diverse characters because we ought to do that, which is a very good reason in itself, but we also wanted it to be woven into the fabric of our show.
What did you think of A Million Little Things? Sound off in the comments section, below.
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