A group of loved ones mourn the unexpected death of the individual who was keeping them all together. The entire scene is a bit racially diverse, but still solidly upper-middle class. There’s a twist that changes the entire way you view the series. Yes, this is definitely the premise of NBC’s juggernaut of a family drama, This Is Us. But, it’s also the framework holding up ABC’s biggest bet of the fall season A Million Little Things.
A Million Things, premiering Wednesday, September 26, is This Is Us with a twist, and everyone who loves the Pearson clan will be crying right along with television’s newest melodramatic crew this year.
As This Is Us’ millions of fans know, the series hinged on the mystery of Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) for 32 episodes, leaving us to wonder the cause of the Papa Pearson's death until the final leg of the series' second season.
A Million Little Things doesn’t play that specific grim game of “How Did He Die?” with viewers (instead, it plays “Why Did He Die?”). The drama revolves around a group of men who become best friends after getting stuck in an elevator together a decade prior. In the years since, the men, made up by real estate wheeler-and-dealer Jon (Ron Livingston), commercial director Rome (Romany Malco), guitar instructor Eddie (Grimm’s David Giuntoli), and Official Snarky Friend Gary (Psyche’s James Roday), have thrived side-by-side, growing families, going to hockey games, and supporting each other through rocky times.
Then, tragedy strikes in the first few minutes of the pilot, when we learn the crew’s emotional pillar, successful Jon, has died by suicide. As proof A Million is just as obsessed with the emotionally macabre as Us, Rome learns of his longtime friend’s death in the middle of his own attempted suicide, as previews confirm. Immediately, Rome spits out the legion of prescription pills he had stuffed in his mouth. It’s visceral.
The pilot then sets the scene for what A Million Things will become in the wake of Jon’s death. The core cast all has their own battles to face, whether we're talking about alcoholism, marriage troubles, suicidal depression, the constant threat of cancer, or plain old grief. Yes, all of these crisis come up in about 42 minutes of television. These men also have wives and girlfriends who just might be more compelling than the core four dudes. Creator DJ Nash assured Refinery29 that Eddie's wife Katherine (Grace Park), who is sketched as an emotionless ice queen in the pilot, will get some sympathetic shading in an early season 1 episode.
But with all of this abject darkness, there must also be light. That comes in the form of shockingly emotional speeches or grand gestures. Despite Jon’s death, he is usually the one sharing this saccharine rumination on the human spirit thanks to video footage and, a Pearson family favorite, flashbacks. Sometimes though, Rome, Eddie, and Gary do get to show off their own chops as teary, vulnerable leading men.
Like This Is Us, all of this emotionality is not enough to power a TV pilot in 2018 anymore. So, there are also a few twists, chief among them some leading details pointing towards why Jon would ever end his life. But this isn’t 13 Reasons Why, a teen show built to allow Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) to detail the many high school torments that led to her own suicide. While 13 Reasons Why does paint a portrait of a tortured girlhood, hounded by misogyny and sexual assault, even the Netflix series came under fire for claiming there could ever be “reason” for someone to die by suicide. Rather, suicidal depression is a complicated, layered mental health crisis — not a puzzle box to be solved.
Over a year after 13 Reasons first caused such waves, it’s a bit jarring to see an entire primetime drama treat such a tragedy as a mere mystery. Especially when adults, who would hopefully know better, are at the center of the story.
The other surprise of A Million Little Things is that it’s entirely possible you may not like some of these characters. In the same way Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) started off as a bit of a brat, and a sizable faction of viewers prayed his twin Kate (Chrissy Metz) wouldn’t marry Toby Damon (Chris Sullivan), some of Jon's closest friends come off less-than-stellar. We learn almost immediately one person is a philanderer. Gary’s snark manifests as callousness more often than is charming. Even Jon himself may seem inexplicably preachy at times in flashback.
But, that’s all apparently a part of A Million Little Thing’s process. After all, if you hate some of these characters now, the tears will come even harder when A Million Little Things tricks you into loving them. That's why it's unlikely the ABC drama and This Is Us will compete for a fan's heart — they'll share it in the same way Jon, Eddie, Rome, and Gary shared their secrets in that fated elevator.
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