Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Million Little Things is No This Is Us — But That's Not a Bad Thing [Contributor: Jenn]

(Image credit: ABC)

Trigger warning: Brief discussions of depression and suicide to follow.

If you're anything like me, you probably watched the first trailer for A Million Little Things and thought: "Did ABC assume I needed another This Is Us in my life to emotionally compromise me each week?" The good news that I have for you with this advanced review of the new drama series is that while there are shades of a This Is Us-esque penchant for making you reach for the tissues, that's about where the similarities end.

Because where This Is Us is all about what connects us, A Million Little Things is all about the secrets we carry — and how they separate us from people. Now, don't get me wrong: that might seem like a cynical reading of the new ABC show, but it's not. I quite enjoyed the pilot, in spite of some of its issues. While both dramas tackle similar topics, tonally, the execution of A Million Little Things is distinct enough from This Is Us that you can watch both shows without a feeling of whiplash or deja vu. Within A Million Little Things' pilot alone, you'll be able to feel the weight of soapy drama — a titular feel for most ABC dramas.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though: let's backtrack momentarily to discuss the plot of the pilot. A Million Little Things focuses on four people who became friends because they were trapped in an elevator together years prior. The group consists of Gary (James Roday), who has battled cancer, Rome (Romany Malco), an aspiring filmmaker, Eddie (David Giuntoli), a recovering addict and guitar teacher, and Jon (Ron Livingston) who, as you might know from the trailer, takes his own life at the start of the series.

Most of the pilot hinges on Jon's suicide and how it impacts his friends and family, including wife and two children. In the pilot, at least, Jon's decision to take his own life seems to be linked to depression, and there is a scene featuring a frank discussion between the core characters about how they could have missed depression and its signs in Jon's life. Some characters acknowledge that depression doesn't often manifest itself in the ways that we expect and we can't blame ourselves for not seeing or noticing signs.

I'd forewarn anyone who is sensitive to suicide and/or discussions of it and depression — or any similar subject matter — to avoid watching the pilot. Though A Million Little Things doesn't necessarily try to sensationalize suicide (this certainly is not 13 Reasons Why), the show does fall back on a character's cliche of, "everything happens for a reason" in order to make sense of silent struggles and Jon's death. While it was a trait and line given to the character, I might be a bit too cynical in hearing it associated with suicide and mental health to see it as significant. To me, that statement is just as empty as "thoughts and prayers" are without action tied to them.

Speaking of cynical: Gary is the group cynic, but Jon's death causes him to make a pretty bold statement about the friendship between him, Rome, and Eddie — they're only friends because they (along with Jon) got trapped in an elevator one day, and that since that day, they never talk about anything real with one another; they haven't in years. A Million Little Things is centered on friendship and connection in relationships: it opens with a quote that says, "Friendship isn't one big thing... it's a million little things." While that sentiment is accurate and pretty, Gary is also right when he drives home his cynicism in the pilot. Each member of the group has kept their fair share of secrets; their friendship, while real, has become more shallow over time — and Jon's death is Gary's reminder of that.

(Image credit: ABC)

Jon's life and death affect everyone differently. As the series progresses, I am sure we'll begin to learn the extent to which his life impacted others, but in the pilot we get glimpses into how each friend and family member handles his passing. And this is where ABC's knack for soapy drama and air of mystery kick in. Though I won't spoil exactly what each person's dark secrets are (some you know through the trailer, others you might be surprised by), A Million Little Things is as much about what happens when we don't share our burdens as what happens when we do. While Gary notes that the group has slipped into surface-level friendship pretty easily (and surmises that this is why none of them knew or saw what Jon was going through), it'd be easy to end the narrative there.

But when people unburden themselves to those they're closest to, healing and transformation happens. There's an especially powerful scene toward the end of the pilot that's evidence of this. The characters we meet at the beginning of the pilot are a lot more complex than just their baggage or issues; you might form different opinions about them by the end of the episode, honestly. And though I'm not entirely sure exactly how far down this road of soapy drama the show is headed (but because of the network and the set-up in the pilot, I suspect my answer is "pretty dang far"), the drama is also not without purpose. Secrets and lies (even ones of omission) will illuminate the character of these individuals.

By far, the performances of James Roday (those who watched him in Psych will notice a similar biting sarcasm and wit of Shawn Spencer; I'm beginning to assume this is just Roday's natural persona because of the ease with which he slips into it) and Romany Malco are stand-outs, and I look forward to seeing them grow in these roles.

A Million Little Things is not a perfect series, and it'd be easy to write it off as a series trying to be This Is Us. But because there are so many little intricacies and complexities to the new ABC series, give it a chance — as long as you feel you are able to do so, safely.

Pilot Grade: B+

A Million Little Things premieres September 26 at 10 p.m. on ABC.


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