Television

A Million Little Things Is The Big Chill for a New Generation

New ABC show attempts to duplicate success of This Is Us.

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Single Parents. ABC. Wednesday, September 26, 9:30 p.m.

'A Million Little Things'
'A Million Little Things,' ABC

A Million Little Things. ABC. Wednesday, September 26, 10 p.m.

Everybody's comparing ABC's new melodrama A Million Little Things to its fellow feel-good-now-feel-bad soap This Is Us. No doubt the success of This Is Us (average weekly viewers: 17.4 million) encouraged ABC to take a shot on form of programming long considered moribund by the network suits.

But for a clue to the real origins of A Million Little Things, listen to ABC's advertising pitch about a group of friends jolted by tragedy: "They discover that friends may be the one thing to save them from themselves." If that sounds a bit like "In a cold world, you need your friends to keep you warm," the advertising catchphrase for the 1983 movie The Big Chill, you're onto the real inspiration of A Million Little Things.

Like the characters in The Big Chill, the friends in A Million Little Things, have come together because of an unexpected and seemingly inexplicable suicide. And, as in The Big Chill, they're all nearing the cusp of middle age, at the moment when they're starting to realize that life isn't going to work out exactly—or maybe remotely—like they planned.

The friends at the core of the show met not in college or even high school, but while stuck in an elevator. (Hey, something had to be different than The Big Chill. There are lawyers.) There they learned they were all Boston Bruins fans, and when they finally got out of the elevator, the first thing they did—after peeing; the show isn't titled The Big Prostate—was to buy season tickets together.

Eddie (David Giuntoli, Grimm) is a lazy freelance guitar teacher who lives off the earnings of his corporate attorney wife (Grace Park, of the recent version of Hawaii Five-0), which is unfortunate because he's planning to divorce her to be with his mistress.

Gary (James Roday, Psych), the group comedian until he came down with breast cancer, is recovering his sense of humor now that he's in remission and is free to join mostly-female support groups, the members of which he boinks like a bunny.

Rome (Romany Malco, Weeds) is a frustrated filmmaker who's been exiled into advertising and was about to swallow a massive overdose of pills when he got the word of his friend's suicide.

That friend, the fourth member of the group, was Jon (Ron Livingston, Loudermilk), a Harvard-educated hardball real estate magnate, and the best individual buddy of each of the others. He helped them out of financial jams, paid for their hockey tickets and soothed their troubles with an endless supply of feel-good aphorisms, including "Friendship is a million little things," "Life's too short—be happy," and "Everything happens for a reason."

Those adages drive the plot of the show. Unlike The Big Chill, there are mysteries beyond the cosmological in Jon's death. Who was he on the phone with moments before he jumped from his office balcony? What was in the note he left but was immediately hidden away by a horrified assistant? And if everything happens for a reason, what was it? It's soon obvious that friendships are not always what they seem; they can lift you up, but also, maybe pull you down. And if all things really do happen for a reason, it isn't necessarily a good one.

A Million Little Things does have some similarities to This Is Us: It's a high-powered soap opera (I don't use that description, or "melodrama," dismissively; there's a reason these genres have survived so long across so many cultures) and it may sometimes be sentimental or maudlin. But it's also sprinkled with humor that pulls it back from the cliff. And it's a story well-acted and well-told, its cast folding together like fingers in a glove.

ABC's new sitcom Single Parents, on the other hand, ranges from silly to dumb, and I also don't use that description dismissively. I laughed out loud, a bunch of times, at its jerky, disgruntled moms and dads who love their kids but genuinely want to kill the martinets who run their progressive school like a posse of smiley-faced Nurse Ratcheds.

The leads are Saturday Night Live vet Taran Killam as Will, a newly divorced newcomer to the ranks, and Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester as Angie, a clingy paralegal. Like most of the parents, they're too busy with their kids and their jobs to have sex lives. "One time I made a boyfriend out of a pile of laundry," broods Angie. "Then I rolled around. It wasn't built to last."

Will is in even worse shape. As the other parents tell him (some more explicitly than others; one, after their first conversation, begs the rest of them, "Somebody tell me when it's safe for my nuts to return to my body"), Will has spent so much time playing mermaids and unicorns with his daughter that he's lost any sense of what it is to be male or even an adult. They band together to help him reclaim his identity.

Killam is very funny in his role, and Meester—who brought a streak of sly wit to her role as a teenage uber-bitch in Gossip Girl—is hilarious. The funniest of all may be Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) as the widowed father of twin girls, still in a deep state of mourning for his wife: a 26-year-old stripper who died in a tragic pole accident. Maybe he'll do a cross-over episode with A Million Little Things.

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