Seven or eight years ago, when it looked like AMC’s quiet prestige period drama “Mad Men” was onto something, a bunch of network execs picked up the phone, presumably barked “’60s!” to whoever was on the line and we were all treated to some of the most disastrous television ever, in the form of “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club.” NBC’s “This Is Us” is the latest TV powerhouse to inspire such a response, though none as transparent as ABC’s “A Million Little Things,” which might as well be called “Hey, This Is Also Us!”
“A Million Little Things” is the story of four friends who met while trapped in an elevator on the way to a Bruins game. Jon (Ron Livingston, “Band of Brothers”) is the glue of the group, a successful businessman, devoted husband and Harvard graduate who takes it upon himself to spout such nuggets of wisdom as, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Friendship isn’t one big thing, it’s…” — can you guess? — “…a million little things.”
Rome (Romany Malco, “Weeds”), an aspiring filmmaker, is happily married to a talented restaurateur but privately struggles with depression. Gary (James Roday, “Psych”) is a sardonic breast cancer survivor who picks up women at survivor support groups and takes them on first dates to funerals. And then there’s Eddie (David Giuntoli, “Grimm”), a guitar teacher who lives perhaps the most tragic life of all, desperately trying to escape his marriage to a (shudder) lawyer, who works long hours and sometimes needs him to pick up their son from daycare. Oh, the horror! Sorry, bud, someone has to pay for the Bruins tickets.
Rome, Gary and Eddie are stunned when they learn that Jon has committed suicide. Jon’s own mantra, “Everything happens for a reason,” keeps coming back to haunt them. He was strong, successful and happy, with loving friends and family, so what could possibly be his reason? Here’s where “A Million Little Things” veers into dangerous territory. Rather than accept that Jon might have been in pain for a long time or that people are more complicated than we see them to be, everyone quickly searches for reasons. Was it because Jon’s wife was unfaithful? Does it have anything to do with a mysterious business deal?
And then the show quickly arrives at the most odious conclusion of all: Maybe it took Jon killing himself for everyone to come to terms with their own problems. It presents suicide as romantic or necessary or beneficial to other people, when it’s none of those things. And of course, the whole thing is neatly wrapped in montages set to “Riptide” by Vance Joy and “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. (ABC, you leave Joni out of this!)
There’s a very strong case to be made that “This Is Us” also leans hard on emotional manipulation of its audience. But somehow it works. The narrative twists are earned. The emotional punches are mostly well-crafted. And the entire show is so nicely acted that every character feels real and worthy of our empathy. “A Million Little Things” just can’t pull that off. Which is perfectly understandable; it’s not easy — even Dan Fogelman, who created “This Is Us,” couldn’t replicate its winning formula in the widely-panned “Life Itself.” Not to mention, getting people to empathize with Boston hockey fans is a very tall order.
The biggest crime a show like “A Million Little Things” commits is to assume that the audience watching it is stupid. No one watched “Mad Men” for cigarettes or upholstery or gin martinis. We watched it because it told a story about deeply complicated people struggling to make sense of a volatile world. It was a show that never thought its interesting setting was a substitute for scrupulous writing and delicious emotional payoffs. And people don’t watch “This Is Us” for crying and death — in fact, many of us enjoy it despite its schmaltz. Pro tip: If you’re going to rip off a show, at least bother to figure out what made the show work in the first place.