"Everything happens for a reason."
You'll hear that more than once if you watch the first episode of ABC's A Million Little Things on Wednesday, and you might even believe it. At least until the happenings pile up so quickly that the reason begins to look like ABC's desire for its own This Is Us.
That might not be quite fair to creator DJ Nash, who told reporters last month that his idea for A Million Little Things preceded the NBC hit, while acknowledging that its success probably paved the way for his getting to make it.
But then the comparison's not fair, either, to This Is Us. The drama from University of Pennsylvania grad Dan Fogelman (Life Itself) may have taken its exploration of the long-ago death of Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) a Crock-Pot too far, but it's always been about a lot more than that, distinguishing itself with its treatment of some tricky subjects, including transracial adoption. And it didn't have Jack kill himself, as some viewers had begun to fear he had as the mystery of his demise dragged on.
A Million Little Things, as you may have heard, goes there, with affable wheeler-and-dealer Jon Dixon (Ron Livingston, Band of Brothers) dying by suicide in the first five minutes of the pilot, leaving everyone who thought they knew him stunned, from his wife, Delilah (Stephanie Szostak), and their children, Sophie and Danny (Lizzy Greene and Chance Hurstfield), to friends Rome and Regina Howard (Romany Malco and Christina Moses), Eddie Savile (David Giuntoli, Grimm), and Gary Mendez (James Roday, Psych). Even Eddie's wife, Katherine Kim (Grace Park, Hawaii Five-0, Battlestar Galactica), whose character is written so horribly in the pilot that the best reason to keep watching is to see her redeemed, is allowed a human moment in talking about Jon.
In the months since I first saw that episode, I've been back and forth on whether a show dealing with the aftermath of suicide is a good thing, or a terrible thing.
Suicide is, as the National Institute of Mental Health notes, a leading cause of death in the U.S. My life has been touched by it. Yours may well have been, too. If someone is writing a TV show about the way a person's family and friends are affected by that person's death, isn't suicide as fair a thing to talk about as a fatal cancer, or someone's being hit by a bus?
Maybe. But only one of those things is considered dangerous to talk about in the wrong way. Which is why fear of "suicide contagion" led to reminders to journalists, in the wake of the deaths in June of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, that we should avoid, for instance, focusing on the means of suicide.
The 2017 release of Netflix's teen-suicide drama 13 Reasons Why led, according to one study, to an increase in Google searches about suicide. Its popularity, meanwhile, led to a second season, and it's been renewed for a third.
As personally painful as I find the subject — and as much as I would warn anyone who feels vulnerable to avoid A Million Little Things simply for the feelings it might trigger — it wasn't until I screened two more episodes recently that I realized the show probably isn't worth the time I've spent wrestling with it.
Because it turns out that Jon, who years earlier had formed a friendship with three men with whom he'd been trapped on an elevator, wasn't exactly letting go when he left behind his life and the quartet's Boston Bruins season tickets.
It's not only that Livingston, like Ventimiglia in This Is Us, will remain a cast regular, through the magic of flashbacks. (Rome, a filmmaker, has, conveniently, been shooting Jon and the others since they first met on the elevator, and he seems to have a lot of footage of him.) It's that his character, a generous guy in life, seems to have also tried to make good things happen after he's gone.
When I asked Nash last month about whether he'd avoid doing things to romanticize the character, he said, "There is absolutely nothing romantic about suicide," and noted that a couple of the show's writers had lost loved ones to it. "It's in our room every day." I think he's sincere.
It's hard, though, in these first three episodes, not to see something romantic, if not exactly heroic, in what appear to be Jon's preparations for his absence. Couple that with the mystery of why he did what he did — his assistant, Ashley (Christina Ochoa), appears to know more than she's telling — and I worry that why-Jon-died will become the how-Jack-died of A Million Little Things.
It doesn't help that so many characters on the show, including many of the people Jon supposedly loved, have secrets of their own. Or that Park's Katherine, originally so one-note, became one of the few adult characters for whom I felt real sympathy.
Even Maggie (Allison Miller), the seemingly perfect woman Gary picks up at his breast-cancer support group — yes, we're reminded, men get breast cancer — has a secret, and she never even met Jon.
These people may not have a million little secrets, but they already have more than I'm interested in exploring.