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ABC's 'A Million Little Things' Season 1, Episode 1 Recap: 'Pilot'

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Renée Fabian, The Mighty’s associate editor of news and lifestyle, reviews ABC’s “A Million Little Things,” a show that references topics like suicide for The Mighty’s mental health community.

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Content warnings: These episodes contain plotlines related to suicide that may be triggering for viewers.

ABC’s new drama, “A Million Little Things,” has been compared to NBC’s hit show, “This Is Us.” Confession: I’ve never seen an episode of that show but I’ve heard from an authority (read: my mom) that emotional drama lovers are anticipating “A Million Little Things” because its tone and premise seem similar to “This Is Us.” Though it’s hard to tell much about a show from the first episode, the pilot of “A Million Little Things” delivers on the emotions but has some concerning ideas about suicide.

“A Million Little Things” focuses on four male friends — Eddie Saville (David Giuntoli), Rome Howard (Romany Malco), Gary Mendez (James Roday) and Jon Dixon (Ron Livingston). We get a glimpse into their characters in an opening sequence. Jon looks out over the city from a lush office while negotiating a high-stakes real estate deal. He sends his loyal secretary, Ashley Morales (Christina Ochoa), out for a long lunch.

Eddie’s frantically digging in the closet talking on the phone to the woman he’s having an affair with, lamenting how he wants to get out of his marriage. His wife, Katherine (Grace Park), a badass, high-powered lawyer (I see you trying to paint her as the ice queen, “A Million Little Things,” and I don’t buy it), returns home unexpectedly because she forgot her briefcase. Eddie hops on the bed with his guitar before she catches him cheating. Eddie’s a has-been lead singer who once opened for Kings of Leon sometime in ancient history.

Gary’s surrounded by posters of the female anatomy in a doctor’s office. He sits in a gown on the table and waits until a doctor brings an X-ray into the exam room. Before the doctor can deliver any results, the doc takes a phone call and starts arguing about balsamic vinegar and salads while Gary waits for his test results. Cancer test results. How many times has something like this happened with your doctor? While at a breast cancer support group meeting — yes, 1 percent of men get breast cancer, he quips — Gary hooks up with fellow breast cancer survivor Maggie Bloom (Allison Miller), who consequently gets hooked permanently into this narrative.  

Rome hand-writes a note on the kitchen counter, which we soon learn is a suicide note. The news plays in the background on a TV and he struggles with self-preservation. His phone rings repeatedly and it’s Gary. Rome declines and declines the call, but Gary doesn’t quit until an exasperated Rome pauses, answers and says, “What?” Gary delivers the news — Jon has died by suicide. Rome abandons his suicide attempt. 

As the friends come together to mourn the loss of Jon with his now-widow Delilah Dixon (Stephanie Szostak), we get some insight into this friendship. They met when stuck in an elevator, and Jon coerced them all into deep, meaningful conversation. Once he learned they were also fans of the Boston Bruins hockey team, the deal was sealed. They went in on season tickets and they’ve been friends ever since.

The glue of their friendship was Jon. He supported all of them in ways big and small, which we hear about in a video Rome made of Jon giving a speech about friendship. Friendship is trusting each other with your wives, your kids. It’s “a million little things,” he says. He supported Rome’s wife, Regina Howard (Christina Marie Moses), and her restaurant dreams, for example. He had a loving wife and two children and the “perfect” life.

“A Million Little Things” dedicates much space for our characters to grapple with shock, grief and loss related to Jon’s death. This is a natural and relatable reaction to the loss of a loved one to suicide, especially if we don’t see any warning signs. Many who die by suicide struggle in silence, even when everything on the outside seems fine. Rome gives voice to this later when he opens up about his own depression, pointing out he loves his wife and has a great life but he still struggles.

At Jon’s funeral, Eddie makes a speech about how Jon always said, “Things happen for a reason,” but Eddie can’t find any reason for this. After the funeral, the group still discusses the “why” of Jon’s death. At a hockey game, Eddie just won’t drop it and he pushes Gary over the edge with his speech about larger implications for the value of life and celestial meaning, even telling Gary he should feel some kind of bigger destiny because he survived cancer.

Gary rounds on him with some real talk. To tell someone their illness happened “for a reason” is to trivialize their experiences. Living with cancer or any health issue isn’t a “gift.” When Rome says that at least one good thing came out of Jon’s death — the call stopped his own suicide attempt — we’re also saying Jon had to die so Rome could live. That’s a problem. It might be easier to sort the bad things that happen into neat containers to make sense of the world, but in doing so we invalidate the complexity of people’s lives and don’t give them space to have their feelings.

Though “A Million Little Things” show creators have said they intend to treat suicide with respect, it’s hard to trust the direction they’re going based on the first episode. The reliance on exploring the reasons behind a suicide hangs in the shadow of the last major show to try this: Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” It garnered mixed reactions, but the overarching suicide prevention community said it wasn’t helpful.

By positioning Jon’s suicide as a mystery to solve, we open all kinds of doors to a variety of misconceptions about suicide. Maybe Jon didn’t love his kids enough, he made a “bad” choice, he didn’t understand the value of life, he could have just asked for help at any time, he did something criminal and was trying to cover it up, he was looking for an easy way out. None of these “whys” are productive. They’re reductive or flat out wrong.

In addition, it seems a little too convenient that Gary meets Maggie — a clinical psychologist — who plants herself into this group of close-knit friends without a hitch. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but what better way to have a mouthpiece to deliver supportive mental health messages to counterbalance storylines that say otherwise? We see this already when Maggie suggests that perhaps Jon “lost sight of the horizon,” which is depression. Meanwhile, “A Million Little Things” drops breadcrumbs left and right that lead toward an investigation of Jon’s death that so far has little to do with mental illness.

In the era of Time’s Up, it’s also maybe tone deaf to create a show that hinges on four male characters, especially when so far the women serve as props for the men. But there’s also an opportunity to really open up about men’s health issues where the stigma of doing so is often greater. Though emotional dramas tend to attract primarily female viewers, portraying vulnerable men in the health and mental health space could be a great idea. Already we see Eddie, Gary and Rome open up about emotional topics. 

Only time will tell how “A Million Little Things” will turn out. Our main characters have their individual struggles to focus on, and we have a dynamic set of relationships that can tangle and untangle in any number of interesting ways. However, if we’re going to continue to include suicide in the narrative, it can’t be from the standpoint of searching for the “reason” it happened. Suicide shouldn’t be manipulated into a major narrative device. We deserve better.

Our Rating:  two out of five stars

“A Million Little Things” has the opportunity to increase our awareness about mental health and cancer, particularly for men. But at first glance, it seems the show is more intent on exploring the “why” of Jon’s suicide in the context of “everything happens for a reason.” I also found it hard to get into these characters, and it took time to sort out who’s who. I don’t think we even know Eddie’s name by the end of the episode. Or maybe I missed it. Regardless, I had to look it up, and it’s not because I like his character, even a little. But there’s enough emotional pull to get people into the show, especially if you like “This Is Us.”

I wish “A Million Little Things” implied it would focus mostly on how the friends and their families relate to each other now, how they work to master their own struggles in the light of a major loss. We can tell an impactful story without “solving” Jon’s death, without exploiting suicide and by extension suicide loss survivors. Yet we’re given hints — a mysterious blue envelope secretary Ashley hides — that “A Million Little Things” has just that in mind. The last thing we need is “13 Reasons Why: All Grown Up.”

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think about the first episode of “A Million Little Things”? What character are you looking forward to learning more about?
  • How do you think the show handled Jon’s suicide? How do you hope they will handle it moving forward?

Header image via Jack Rowand/ABC.

Originally published: September 26, 2018
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