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NBC’s smash hit This Is Us is a show with a surplus of sentiment, a full color palette of emotional responsiveness. Give that show an hour and, at its best, it will make you laugh and swoon and cringe with human recognition. Yes, it might make you cry, but I’ve always felt that the most authentically sad moments of This Is Us generally arise from its most authentically warm moments.
The mystery of Jack’s demise went from an annoyingly coy bit of storytelling in the pilot and got extended and elongated such that it basically became what the show was for too much of its second season. For me, This Is Us has always been at its absolute worst when it latched on to being a show about death, instead of a show in which death is couched as merely one feature of life.
AIR DATE Sep 26, 2018
I highly doubt D.J. Nash wrote his new ABC drama, A Million Little Things, as an attempt to capitalize on the success of This Is Us, but I don’t doubt that ABC saw the allure of chasing the pot of golden Kleenex at the end of the rainbow, because if there’s one thing network TV is good at, it’s misinterpreted imitation. And while I even more highly doubt that Nash, who boasts a comedy-heavy résumé, intended for A Million Little Things to be a show primarily about death, that’s the sentiment that comes through most strongly after three episodes sent to critics.
A very good cast and a steady vein of humor keep A Million Little Things watchable, while the fetishizing of death and a failure to generate consistent complementary emotions keep it from rising above a well-intentioned slog, a derivative Thirtysomething Reasons Why.
The series opens with Jon (Ron Livingston) completing a business deal in his office and, apropos of nothing we see, stepping off the balcony to his death. This comes as a shock to Jon’s buddies and fellow Boston Bruins season ticket holders Eddie (David Giuntoli), Rome (Romany Malco) and Gary (James Roday). The surviving friends, grief-stricken, still have their own issues, which Jon’s death may force them to confront. Inconvenient for him, mighty helpful for them.
Rome, a commercial director with cinematic dreams, has his own emotional problems he can’t reveal to his wife, Regina (Christina Moses). Gary is in remission from breast cancer and embarking on what he thinks will be a fling with a fellow cancer survivor (Allison Miller), which we know won’t just be a fling because Miller is a cast regular and she’s great (and formerly starred on NBC’s Go On, a better show about grief). Eddie, a thwarted rock star, is having an affair and looking for a way to end things with his work-obsessed wife, Katherine (Grace Park). Finally, Jon’s widow, Delilah (Stephanie Szostak), is left picking up the pieces, while parenting daughter Sophie (Lizzy Greene) and son Theo (Tristan Byon).
Oh, and Jon’s assistant Ashley (Christina Ochoa) may know more about Jon’s death than she’s letting on, but as a human red herring she frustratingly superfluous, plus she’s tied to the “mystery” of Jon’s death, which is merely frustrating.
Suicide is often a baffling mystery to loved ones left behind, but rather than being content with that mystery, there’s something more literal going on in A Million Little Things and it isn’t the least bit interesting. To give the show some credit, the mystery playing out mirrors the uncertainty experienced by the main characters, so this isn’t a This Is Us-style manipulation of the audience by withholding details that the characters onscreen already know. However, and this may be where A Million Little Pieces really falls apart, This Is Us treated Jack as a real person before treating him like a dead person. The same is true with how Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and Katherine Langford found a way, in the first season at least, to make Hannah into more than just the girl who killed herself. Jon, through no fault of Livingston’s, is just an enigmatic barrel of platitudes. There’s a reasonable chance that there’s a level on which this is intentional, that Jon’s friends are coming to realize how little they maybe knew about him, but in absence of us caring about him, it becomes extended performative grief rather than shared grief. We sure as heck don’t have a reason to miss Jon, and when he’s used in flashbacks nothing in his presence makes his absence lamentable.
And the first three episodes of A Million Little Things are filled with lamentations and with the dangerous conflating of death as a catalyst for personal improvement. You’d never watch a show with the tag line “His death taught them how to truly live,” since it’d be tacky and mawkish, yet that’s what this show all too frequently is. There’s a real valley in the second episode, in which Jon’s justifiably miserable children are saddled with two of the more excruciating subplots possible and using grieving kids to make the audience lachrymose is straight-up cheating.
A Million Little Things is better when it just focuses on these men, trained by society not to express their emotions, trying to comprehend how and if they failed their friend and if their particular quartet was joined together by anything real or if Jon was the group’s glue. The third episode takes the characters to Bruins Fantasy Camp and it feels like a reasonable conclusion to what maybe should have just been a 100-minute movie, and maybe the series going forward could be less monomaniacally miserable. Roday and Malco, both perhaps more familiar to TV viewers from comedic work, are very committed to honoring the story’s drama and willing to inject a few necessary laughs here and there. Giuntoli doesn’t have that much character range, and Eddie is mostly mopey for very logical reasons, yet this is much better than Grimm led me to expect from him.
The show is wildly imbalanced when it comes to handling the differences between male and female friendship, which needn’t have been a problem except that Nash and company are determined that the wives and girlfriends wouldn’t be appendages. Episode after episode, though, activities are coded as “male” and “female” and the guys are off steering the plot and having adventures and the women are talking about interior decorating and drinking wine. This becomes especially egregious with Miller’s Maggie, whose instant inclusion in the ladies’ side of the plot has the feeling of one of those parlor dramas where the men repair to the drawing room for cigarettes and brandy and serious conversation, leaving the women to gossip and make care packages for the boys overseas. Szostak, Miller and even, in the third episode, Park have moments, even if every time they’re onscreen you feel like they’re intruding on the masculine space the show values more.
Bless the show, incidentally, for asking none of its main characters to attempt Boston accents. I don’t think I quite understand where all of them are supposed to be from, just that nobody is masquerading as a previously unrevealed Wahlberg brother. Sure, a good accent or two might have made things feel more real, and definitely the show’s Beantown bona fides are flimsy, but better nobody try than have everybody try and end up with four or five awful variations on the challenges of depositing your automobile in the area around Harvard.
To paraphrase the truly vacuous cliche that gives A Million Little Things its title, a successful TV show isn’t one big thing, it’s a million little things. The challenge, then, is that TV is a fundamentally imitative business, and whenever something succeeds, executives try to reproduce that multifaceted success, usually in haste and usually basing that emulation on a single ingredient, not an entire, complicated recipe. If you’re a viewer for whom “sadness” was a primary reason to watch This Is Us, or a thing you feel like you require in other TV shows, this will fill that need. To me, great TV is more than just that one thing.
Cast: David Giuntoli, Ron Livingston, Romany Malco, Allison Miller, Christina Moses, Christina Ochoa, Grace Park, James Roday, Stephanie Szostak and Lizzy Greene
Creator: D.J. Nash
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC, beginning Sept. 26.
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