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A Million Little Things Review

There’s little question about the fact that A Million Little Things is looking to capitalize on the clear market for what I call “emotion porn.” The trailer isn’t interested in sharing much about what might be headed to your living room beyond the fact that a group of people are going to have to deal with the unexpected suicide of their seemingly happy friend/husband, in much the way that trailers for This Is Us simply showcased a group of people that did not list “really lucky,” when describing themselves.

That’s a serious hurdle when it comes to the show’s ratings potential, because the most likely people tune in may not get enough of what they’re looking for, and many who would love it may not show up.

What we know going in is that Jon (Ron Livingston) suddenly kills himself, and he leaves in his wake a wife and three very close friends who are all in shock. There was no sign that Jon was unhappy, he didn’t leave a note, and he seemingly had everything one might want in his life.

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What we learn is that Jon wasn’t simply a man who surprisingly took his own life, but was the last person anyone would suspect of having any sort of problem. “Everything happens for a reason,” was his cheerful catchphrase, and he was the one everyone would have turned to in their time of need, if Jon didn’t step in before they even knew they needed to ask. His group of close friends only know each other because a decade ago they were trapped for two hours in an elevator, and Jon convinced them that they were all going to go in on Bruins season tickets. Classic Jon.

Now, the people in his life are left to pick up the pieces, and with no clues at all, which is perhaps the most staggering shock. If he had a reason, maybe we could put his suicide into a neat box that only changed our lives in certain ways, but if Jon had no reason… what chance do the rest of us have?

photo: ABC/Jack Rowand

The lack of explanation and, to some extent, closure, sends his friends spinning, causing his crew – Gary (James Roday), Rome (Romany Malco), and Eddie (David Giuntoli) – to wonder if they really know each other at all. As much as the setup might easily run toward the treacly, it’s delivered with a sense of realism that eschews the next level drama of lesser offerings in favor of really pulling apart the very live questions it brings up. If we had no clue, how close can we really be?

There are links in the show’s establishment chain that are perhaps one push too many, such as Gary’s random encounter that leads to his having a depression counselor in tow, and the show has a secret it reveals near the end of the pilot which makes for more than we thought we were signing up for, but it’s still a show that wins out because while there is sadness everywhere, it isn’t what it’s after.

What happens in the show is that a seemingly happy person commits suicide, and those connected to him try to make sense of it, but there’s a reason the show is called “A Million Little Things,” and not something like, “Why?” As Rome shows us while going through old videos, Jon made a case for the idea that friendship is a million little things. A suicide may be the catalyst that brings us into the show, but it’s about friendship, relationships, how they work, and why they are actually such weird things if you stop and look at them, which no one ever does.

That small shift is the key to elevating the show from what might have been a passable melodrama to something that has you thinking more than it might have you reaching for a tissue, and Gary is really the subtle key element in the formula.

While everyone else is shocked, crushed, and/or simply unable to process things at all (some for more reasons than the immediately obvious), Gary is pissed, and not only is he the one who questions whether this group of friends ever knew each other at all, he finds it hard to stomach any of the “wisdom” Jon has dished out over the last decade. “Everything happens for a reason,” is like a knife in the gut from the grave, and Gary isn’t having it, until he’s suddenly forced to allow it some glimmer of merit. Roday is perhaps the perfect choice for the role, because he has to be something of an annoyance at a time when no one wants one, and you still have to like him. He prods. He jokes. He shows up at the funeral with a girl he just met. Classic Gary. The show is unquestionably best when either he’s reacting, or people are reacting to him, and his time on Psych made him something of a master of “acting tennis.”

There’s a danger that this is a show that hasn’t thought through much beyond the pitch, which means that after six or seven episodes it could just start spinning its wheels and kicking puppies, but for now it delivers as much shock in its effort to give you real people as any aspect of its suicide. What “happens” during the show is just a kind of gravy. The real show, and why it’s bursting with potential, is just developing people who seem real and having them act how those people would act, whether that leads to the most possible drama and crying, or nothing at all.

Summary
A Million Little Things best quality is simply that it isn't what it seems, but is instead much more interested in actual depth than the kicking of puppies. The problem is that this means those who tune in are in for a surprise, and many who are likely to love it may not show up.
10
Perfect
Written by
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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