Before the credits even roll on ABC's new drama A Million Little Things, all four main characters -- all dudes, if it matters -- are on the brink of death in one way or another. One is in the middle of a dying marriage that could send him crawling back to alcoholism, another is asking a doctor if his breast cancer is back, one is in the midst of a suicide attempt, and another is in the process of a much more successful suicide attempt. It's a punch-in-the-face-and-a-knee-to-the-groin way to start off a show, and it certainly portends what's to come: sadness, by the bucketloads.
The successful suicide is of course what tees up the shared misery to come, and there's plenty of misery. There are a million little things, and at least 999,999 of them are miserable. Jon (Ron Livingston), a successful real estate man who crashes a three-man bro-down to make it a foursome of friends in a previous timeline, cannonballs off the balcony of his posh Boston high-rise office for an unknown reason that will serve as the This Is Us-inspired series' "How did Jack die?" This is grief drama, where the best way to tell a story is to relive a nightmare over and over. And if we're lucky, we can stop it from being a trend right now.
Jon's death blasts a crater into the lives of his pals, unemployed guitar teacher Eddie (Grimm's David Giuntoli), beardy Gary (Psych's James Roday) and depressed-but-not-explained-why Rome (Weeds' Romany Malco), as well as their wives and girlfriends, who, for the most part, take a backseat to the guys unless they need to throw a wrench in their plans or be scolded for their bad behavior. A Million Little Things is essentially "What happens to these guys now that Jon is dead?" They're sad, that's what.
In addition to the blunt force trauma of how the suicide cracks open this circle of friends, A Million Little Things is chock full of grief drama cues to wring every bit of moisture from your eyes until they're beef jerky. There's literally a slow-mo shot of a coffee cup crashing to the floor when Jon's wife Delilah (Stephanie Szostak) finds out her husband is dead, because on the screen, grievous shock is conveyed by a sudden forgetfulness of how to hold on to beverage containers. Piano and acoustic guitar ring through the background like we're watching a sad golf tournament, plucking away until your ears are weeping. Whispery covers of soft-rock favorites -- Simple Minds, Steve Winwood; how dare you taint "Higher Love," A Million Little Things! -- take you hostage at the beginning of each episode to mold you into the right emotional state for maximum grief absorption. And hugs, A Million Little Hugs, there are so many hugs in this. It's an orgy of hugs! All these are hallmarks of sad TV, and they're inescapable.
But where A Million Little Things really goes grief-y is with Jon himself. The man hangs over the show like a specter, his cheery attitude and words of wisdom (the man was a walking, talking motivational speech) living forever in iPhone videos, voicemail messages and pre-planned and pre-paid excursions for his homies that keep popping up to remind them and us that Jon is dead and we don't know why he did it. Why did you do it, Jon? And who really has all these iPhone videos saved?
It's impossible for everyone to move on because the image and voice of alive and happy Jon is always around, like he planned to make everyone miss him so badly when he left that he made sure someone was recording him when he dispensed passages from his bro bible, like how friendship is a million little things (ah, now I get it) or that "wives are off limits," the latter of which becomes kind of a big deal. And it's clear he was the coolest of the crew, as even though he was the newest member of the group, he was the one they all admired the most. He was perfect. Why did you do it, Jon? With every viewing of a video of Jon being awesome and happy while he was alive (he even smiles as he's about to plunge dozens of stories to the pavement), there's the cut to the emotionally gutted friend wondering what they could have done to keep him alive. It's emotionally effective, sure, like huffing dramatic mustard gas.
What does it mean, though? Through three episodes, it's hard to figure out exactly what the show is trying to tell us beyond the obvious. Suicide is sad? Most of us, unfortunately, know that from personal experience. Friends stick together through tough times? Sure, but intergroup blowups are a key part of grief drama and these guys definitely have their shouting matches in the middle of the street. A Million Little Things operates with the idea that viewers want to feel something when they watch TV, and stimulating sadness is a lot easier than creating happiness or laughter, just ask Sarah McLachlan.
But what I'm really worried about is how the series will handle the driving question behind Jon's death: Why'd you do it, Jon? Through three episodes, that appears to be the grand question A Million Little Things seeks to answer, as if through some investigation, the guys will unearth that Jon had a massive gambling debt, that his seemingly perfectly life was marred by marriage woes, that his business was tanking or any other singular answer that will solve his suicide. And once that answer is found, everything will be better. (They won't.)
This isn't Jack dying trying to save his family from a fire caused by a malicious Crock-Pot, this is unpacking the state of mind of a human being who willingly decides he's better off dead than alive. The best thing A Million Little Things can do, for the sake of respect, is leave that question unanswered as those affected by suicide know that's often the case. But how will viewers respond to a show asking that question over and over again and never answering it? This doesn't end in any good way for A Million Little Things. Suicide is complicated and to anyone who wishes to dramatize it, I say good f***ing luck.
There are a few things that A Million Little Things does well though. It's great at summoning emotion, even if it is evil to do so and defiles the sacred Church of Steve Winwood. The performances are pretty good; grief drama is a layup for ACTING and these guys are throwing down tomahawk jams. Livingston is perfectly cast as the charming dead guy, and Roday does a more than admirable job deflecting all of Gary's insecurities with zing-dings but adding heft to his dramatic scenes. Most importantly, A Million Little Things knows that it's not going to survive with being subtle, so it dumps the whole bucket of problems out quickly. One storyline gets blown up in Episode 3 when I for sure thought it would be held for the midseason finale at the earliest. Of course, I wonder how quickly the show will run out of gas (and how much the audience can take) if it's throwing haymakers of sadness this frequently.
The other side of that is some of those haymakers land, with or without emotional manipulation. Some of the show's points will be very relatable to some, whether it's the impact of suicide, the topic of infidelity or picking a friend up during terrible times. The hope is that these difficult topics aren't exploited and they eventually lead to examinations of character, but it's too early to tell in the early episodes, particularly when the characters are still taking shape.
There's a chance A Million Little Things will be a hit. Grief drama is easy and effective; just look at This Is Us. But for all of us just trying to get through the world's problems and looking to feel something other than numbness, why not aim to feel good instead of sad? There are a million other things you could be watching instead.
A Million Little Things premieres Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 10/9c.