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Review: ‘A Million Little Things’ Gets Few of Those Things Right

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

“Everything happens for a reason” is godawful advice. It’s false and unhelpful, and it lacks even the polite symmetry of the equally banal “It is what it is.” It’s something people say when they don’t know you or care about your problems. Given all of the mantras or kōans or slogans or the signature taglines available on this planet, “A Million Little Things” still chose “everything happens for a reason” to be its central character’s prized phrase. It’s a bad sign.

“A Million Little Things,” which premieres Wednesday on ABC, is about a group of best bro buds, as we’re reminded of over and over. They are best buds! And bros! But their perfect bubble of brodom is shattered when Jon Dixon (Ron Livingston), the first among equals, kills himself in the show’s opening moments. Jon’s the one who constantly said everything happened for a reason, and thus many of his loved ones — his wife, his teen daughter and tween son, his friends, the ladies who tolerate his friends, his assistant — are therefore looking for a reason.

This leads to one of many distressing and off-putting ways the show approaches suicide: that a death has one catalyzing cause, when suicide has many causes, including mental illness. The show also packages suicide as some beautiful mystery to be examined, one last puzzle to bring us all together — classic Jon, he always knew how to get us on the same page.

Jon’s friend Rome (Romany Malco) is also suicidal, and is in fact about to kill himself, too, when he finds out about Jon’s death. But the show approaches Rome’s depression and despair as quirky traits rather than devastating, life-threatening conditions that require immediate and persistent attention.

The show at once romanticizes and minimizes suicide, which is something art sometimes does. But even worse, it’s all in the service of a slog of a story about irritating and unspecial characters. Jon’s big advice for his daughter was “Dixons don’t quit.” The evidence of his incredible thoughtfulness is that he set a calendar reminder for his friends’ birthdays. Teddy Ruxpins are more original and responsive than this.

There’s Jon, there’s Rome, and then there’s Eddie (David Giuntoli), the mopey guitar teacher, and Gary (James Roday), the jerky, glib cancer survivor. Eddie hates his wife Katherine (Grace Park) because, um, she’s a lawyer? Gary likes to scam on lots of women and meets Maggie (Allison Miller) at a cancer support group, and somehow she immediately becomes one of the gang, befriending Rome’s wife Regina (Christina Marie Moses) and Jon’s widow Delilah (Stephanie Szostak). Maggie is instantly there for lots of painful and intimate moments, even though she and Delilah are literal strangers.

It’s odd nonsense, one of many signs that this show that claims to be about friendship doesn’t have clear ideas about what friendship is or means. (It’s “a million little things,” see.) The yearslong bond these men formed through shared experience and hardships and triumphs is mostly identical to the bond these two women formed when one of them came along as a plus-one to the other one’s husband’s funeral. Yesterday.

In the three episodes made available to critics, “Million” dabbles in “This Is Us”–style schmaltz; in “thirtysomething”–style “let’s all talk about how being married is boring sometimes but also good”; and in “Damages”–style ominous computer clacking indicating business scandals might be afoot. It’s also very reminiscent of the Netflix teen drama “13 Reasons Why” in that it deifies the character who kills himself and sets up the idea that they’ve left an elaborate trail of bread crumbs to explain their suicide, and that everyone will be so sorry once they finally understand how wrong they’ve been.

It’s fine for a show to be emotionally manipulative — we know what we’re getting, we’re along for the ride. A teen girl plays guitar and sings a Joni Mitchell song at her father’s funeral? Sure, I cried; I’m not an animal. Weepy is good, in its way.

Weepy scenes aren’t a whole show, though. “A Million Little Things” never finds its way to an authentic moment. It’s set in Boston but never feels like Boston whatsoever. It confuses soundtrack for story. By all available evidence and for multiple reasons, if not quite a million, these friends would be better off without each other.

A Million Little Things
Wednesdays on ABC


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