While it’s not surprising that the broadcast networks would want to capitalize on the success of NBC’s This Is Us by creating their own weepy family dramas with a tinge of mystery, it is surprising that A Million Little Things is the closest any of them have come so far. The new series, created by D.J. Nash (Bent), features an impressive ensemble cast that includes David Giuntoli (Grimm), James Roday (Psych), Grace Park (Hawaii Five-0), Romany Malco (Blunt Talk), Ron Livingston, and more as a group of middle-aged friends and couples in Boston who find their lives turned upside down when one of them — Livingston’s John Dixon — unexpectedly commits suicide. The resulting questions surrounding his sudden death and the various truths that are revealed (to the audience, mostly) compel the rest of the group to not only uncover the reasons behind John’s decision, but also to become more accepting of what the world has to offer, to ostensibly be more open to living their lives to the fullest, in whatever form that might take.
That’s a tall order for any series, and given the circumstances of the inciting incident, it not only upends the idea of a feel-good weeper to a feel-bad one, it also differentiates A Million Little Things from This Is Us enough that a more apt comparison might be to ABC’s late ‘80s-early '90s ensemble Thirtysomething. The mid-life angst those couples struggled with is definitely on display here as in addition to losing the proverbial glue that held them all together, these people are individually dealing with infidelity, cancer, and the kind of hopelessness that drives another of the group to contemplate his own suicide before learning of John’s death.
That A Million Little Things manages to introduce all of its characters and give a cursory outline of their individual circumstances in the span of an opening montage is impressive. It’s more impressive that when these various introductions end with John leaping (offscreen) from his office balcony, in view of his assistant Ashley (Christina Ochoa, Blood Drive), it convincingly feels like this is the start of something, and not its end. Most viewers’ mileage is going to vary when it comes to their desire to tune in regularly for a show about angsty upper middle-class people struggling to find happiness and sometimes failing, but for a pilot episode that is tasked with some of the heaviest heavy lifting in recent memory, A Million Little Things leaves just enough questions unanswered that those not completely turned off by the deliberate tear-jerking nature of it all may find themselves tuning in to find out what’s next.
That question is central to the lives of the show’s characters. Giuntoli’s Eddie Saville, a former musician and now stay-at-home dad and husband to Park’s high-powered attorney Katherine, is contemplating leaving his unfulfilling marriage for the mother of one of his music students, while Roday’s Gary is recovering from breast cancer and uses his support group to meet women, which he does in Maggie Bloom (Allison Miller), a young woman he brings to John’s funeral in what is described as typical Gary behavior. Meanwhile, Malco’s Rome Howard, a frustrated commercial director with dreams of making a feature film, is the member of the group who also would have been dead had it not been for the fortuitous phone call informing him of John’s demise.
Rome and John’s wives, Regina (Christina Marie Moses) and Delilah (Stephanie Szostak), respectively, comprise the rest of the primary ensemble — John and Delilah’s two kids notwithstanding — but for the time being seem put there to define their spouses. Though Delilah does manage a surprise of her own when it’s revealed that she is in fact the woman Eddie is contemplating leaving Katherine for.
The reveal is a well-calculated form of narrative deceit, one that A Million Little Things peddles in a little too frequently in the pilot. The idea being: let’s introduce the audience to these people, and then reveal who they truly are in the pilot’s closing moments. The effectiveness of this ploy is certainly questionable; the likability of the characters was uncertain to begin with but finding out most of them are lying to one another (and in some cases, themselves) paints an entirely different picture. There’s something intriguing about some of the reveals — especially Eddie and Delilah’s affair — but it has less to do with the narrative ins and outs of the problem that has been created and more to do with whether or not the characters were compelling enough in the first 40 minutes that discovering uncomfortable truths about them is going to be of further interest.
As pilots go, this one is almost overwhelmed with table setting. Pushing through the getting-to-know you phase of a new series, in addition to showing the immediate aftermath of John’s death, the subsequent funeral, and then an impassioned speech by Gary about the ways they’re all failing one another as friends (which turns out to be more true than even he can imagine) is a monumental task, one that deserves credit for not being a complete slog. But putting all that heavy lifting into the pilot suggests A Million Little Things may well mature into a more emotionally fulfilling and entertainingly soapy adult drama as the season moves on. It certainly wasn’t shy about divulging Eddie’s seven years of sobriety are a joke or that Maggie’s cancer is no longer in remission. And, because it has to appeal to the This Is Us fans who’re in looking for a reason to cry in front of their television while watching something other than the news, the series hints heavily that Ashley is in possession of the reason why John killed himself.
Again, individual mileages on stories like this are going to vary wildly, and though it earns its comparisons to This Is Us, A Million Little Things isn’t terribly interested in those feel-good vibes NBC’s series loves to give off. This is a much darker story about people (yes, privileged people) who are fundamentally broken in some way or another. It’s a good bet that as the series moves on it will demonstrate more reasons why that comparison is surface level only.
A Million Little Things continues next Wednesday with ‘Band of Dads’ @10pm on ABC.