“A Million Little Things” (10 p.m. Eastern Wednesdays on ABC) is the least bad network newcomer I’ve reviewed so far. If the search for answers to why a guy (Ron Livingston’s real-estate mogul Jon) jumped off a high balcony to his death grabs you – hey, this premise made “13 Reasons Why” a hit – then it might be worth pursuing. This show handles suicide and depression with a defter touch than you might fear, but also focuses on a narrow swath of the population: well-off folks in Boston.
Created by TV veteran DJ Nash, seeking his first breakout series, “A Million Little Things” serves up the requisite clichés in the aftermath of a friend’s shocking death, but is aware of this and does a decent job undercutting them. The mantras at the show’s thematic core come from Jon himself. Stuck in an elevator for hours, he meets three men who will become his best friends: Eddie (David Giuntoli), Rome (Romany Malco of “Six Degrees”) and Gary (James Roday). Jon expresses his belief that everything happens for a reason. Down the road, he notes that friendship isn’t one big thing, it’s a million little things. This material sounds corny on paper, but Livingston sells the hell out of it.
The pilot episode takes us through the funeral, the wake and the friends’ attempts at getting on with their lives as Jon would want them to (the three surviving buddies attend a Boston Bruins game, as is their custom). But Gary undercuts all the sentiment by calling BS on it – perhaps rightly noting that none of them will live their lives differently after this wake-up call. Then Rome admits he, too, is depressed – and that the phone call about Jon’s death interrupted his own suicide attempt – and Gary and Eddie are both there for him.
The guys’ friendships seem genuine, as do those of the gals – Jon’s wife Delilah (Stephanie Szostak) and Rome’s wife Regina (Christina Marie Moses). And Gary’s date Maggie (Allison Miller of “Terra Nova”), whom he meets at a cancer support group, quickly bonds with the other two women.
At the same time, everyone has secrets, and we’re meant to wonder if any of these secrets (or not-so-secrets) played a role in Jon’s death. We are given some information up front: Dililah and Eddie are engaged in an affair. And other things are meant to keep us tuning in: Jon’s assistant, Ashley (Christina Ochoa of “Blood Drive”) picks up a manila folder Jon left on the balcony, peeks at it and tucks it into a drawer.
In a broad sense, “A Million Little Things” achieves a tricky balancing act: It’s not insensitive about depression even though it’s structured as a “why he dunit?” mystery. It’s not salacious; everyone (even those doing things that could hurt Jon) genuinely mourns and misses Jon. But of course, that’s not enough to hang an episode on, let alone a series – hence the mystery angle.
While its portrayal of depression isn’t insensitive, it’s also somewhat shallow. Depression is caused by chemicals in the brain, and that’s not really touched on in the pilot episode.
At the same time, people with depression think something in their life is making them depressed, and “A Million Little Things” doesn’t give the average viewer much reason to sympathize with these people. As for Jon, we don’t know his inner thoughts, nor if any potential extenuating circumstances affected him.
As for Rome, he hasn’t achieved his dream of making a movie. His standard excuse for sticking with the commercial-filming job that he “hates” is that “the money’s too good.” He lives in a very nice house, as usual on network TV shows, and is in a loving relationship with his wife Regina. While it’s true that people in any walk of life can be depressed for any reason (from their chemically skewed perspective), it’s hard for a viewer to drum up sympathy for Rome. It would be easier if we saw him struggling with finances or loneliness.
“A Million Little Things” has a totally game cast and a challenging premise, but it feels like it’s cleanly respecting the issue of depression rather than getting its hands dirty and digging into it.
And as for the mystery angle: Is it crucial to know “why” Jon killed himself – and is there even a tangible “why” to begin with? If the show pursues this Big Mystery path, brace yourself for the answer being “a million little things,” and also for the show to be axed before it gets to the beginnings of an answer anyway.