“You’re not gonna believe this,” a voiceover states. The music drops from a crescendo to just piano, “John killed himself.”
This is the moment of the preview where you’re supposed to gasp, then command Siri to set a reminder for the premiere. I don’t gasp, though. I instead feel the lump in my throat return as the familiar void I’ve fought most of my adult life creeps closer. Instead of texting a friend with my usual excitement over a new show, I simply text that I saw “it” again. Having lost a friend to suicide only one month ago, the premise hits uncomfortably close to home.
The new ABC drama A Million Little Things focuses on a group of friends, Eddie (Dave Giuntoli), Rome (Romany Malco) and Gary (James Roday), coping in the aftermath of their friend John’s (Ron Livingston) suicide. The pilot is emotional – exactly what the previews promise- but what the previews conveniently omit is that it could also be considered downright scary to anyone who has battled or currently battles mental illness.
See, many outlets have touted A Million Little Things as ABC’s response to NBC’s This Is Us. If this is the case, and the former does in fact follow the latter, A Million Little Things should quickly expect millions of viewers and sky-high ratings in the adults aged 18-49 demographic.
That’s great, until you remember that depression affects one in ten adults per year and is the leading cause of disability among people aged 15-44. Not only that, but a CDC study published in June of 2018 shows suicide rates have spiked as much as 40% in the last twenty years. That’s a considerable percentage of viewers who may find the show too jarring to watch.
Overall, the show handles its delicate subject matter appropriately. It falters thematically, however, with repeated references to John’s mantra of “everything happens for a reason.” I respectfully call bullshit on this one. My friend did not leave his wife and two-year-old behind just to get us to hang out more often, nor does John leave his family just to get his friends to live their lives to the fullest. Frankly, this logic is faulty, and maybe even a little irresponsible. Trying to find meaning in the wake of such a tragedy is a coping mechanism, yes, but the idea of there being a bright side to suicide walks a fine line between coping and glamorizing.
Then there’s the twist in the last ten minutes that minimizes everything the pilot tries to do. On another show, such a turn would be juicy and captivating, but here, it’s just unnecessary. The twist is the revelation of an ongoing action that offers an alternative reason for John’s death, detracts from the show’s objective, and only makes you dislike the characters involved.
Creator D.J. Nash says that he wants to tell this story “in an authentic way.” If that is the case, Nash and his team have a responsibility that reaches far beyond simply making a good show. Year after year, data supports the notion of suicide contagion. Nash and his team will need to use extreme caution to tell a story that is both true to life and entertaining.
Caution is not the only added responsibility, as there is also the issue of television’s portrayal of mental illness. The medium’s depictions of depression, anxiety and other illnesses have greatly improved thanks to shows like You’re the Worst, BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but there is still a long way to go. Every new show that makes a fall lineup has the potential to singlehandedly help or hurt efforts to end the stigma. If A Million Little Things can focus on mental health and open a dialogue, the show will help it. If the circumstances behind John’s suicide continue to be wrapped in mediocre dramatic devices, they will hurt it. This is a rare instance where following the basic formula of a television drama is a bad idea. Honesty- not entertainment- should be the creative team’s main priority.
For those of us who battle mental illness, A Million Little Things may not be so little. Hopefully, the producers and writers are aware of their audience and handle these characters’ stories appropriately.
A Million Little Things premieres Wednesday, September 26 on ABC.