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Please, let there be more to A Million Little Things than it seems

Ron Livingston, fourth from left, pulls strings from beyond the grave in A Million Little Things.
It’s one of the most mindless platitudes in the Oprah playbook: everything happens for a reason. No it doesn’t. Sometimes shit just happens. Go sell your New Age malarkey somewhere else. But that wouldn’t make a catchy mantra for a new drama series about dudes bonding. A Million Little Things – “Friendship isn’t a big thing, it’s a million little things” – begins with shit happening. In a scene that recalls the dressing of deceased Alex in 1983 movie The Big Chill, we find Jon carefully outfitting himself – tie, cufflinks, sorted – for his final hours on Earth. He’s the alpha member of a group of four guys who met in an elevator that clearly got stuck for a reason. Under the influence of Jon – rich, wise, perfect – they opened up. Now Jon’s closing a deal, then stepping off his office balcony.

Jon will live on in flashback, which is good because he’s played by Ron Livingston, the reliably complex, magnetic star of Loudermilk and Search Party. It’s also bad because, as with another suicide series, 13 Reasons Why, his continued presence and agency in the lives of those he left behind have the effect of minimising the brutal finality of his exit.

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Jon has always set the rules of engagement: season tickets to Boston Bruins hockey games for all and, “Guys, wives are off limits”, when it comes to man talk. He seems to have the answers, which is useful because his pals have major issues. Wise-cracking insurance guy Gary is sleeping his way through his breast cancer support group. Unfulfilled commercial director Rome has a mouthful of pills when he gets the news about Jon. What are the odds of 50% of a friend group deciding to top themselves on the same day? Rome pauses to filter the water he’s using to wash down the pills, so this is possibly a cry-for-help situation, but still. Recovering alcoholic and stay-at-home dad Eddie is married to stern lawyer Katherine. He delivers a moving eulogy at the funeral as if he didn’t ignore Jon’s last call because he was in bed with Jon’s beautiful wife, Delilah. Eddie isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. The first question you have to ask is why, why, why, Delilah?

As was the case with Thirtysomething’s self-absorbed band of pathologically annoying yuppies back in the 80s, it’s difficult to relate to these people. “Why is everyone an idiot?” wails Katherine.

And yet, by episode two, the series had me hook, line and slightly leaden sinker. At its best it’s slick and mordant. Gary tells his friends, “If delivering horrific news is on your bucket list, take it off. It’s not as fun as you think.” The cast is diverse and the women – lawyer, psychologist, chef – are people who do things.

As Jon choreographs his pals’ lives from beyond the grave, the makers of A Million Little Things pluck at your heartstrings like a harpist at an André Rieu concert. They dare you not to weep at the scene where Rome dances with Jon’s teenager, Sophie, at a father-daughter school review.

It remains to be seen if this offers anything deeper than the undemanding catharsis of those YouTube videos in which soldiers come home from deployment and reunite with their dogs.

Has Jon thrown himself off a building so that his friends can bond more authentically? If that’s the message, the sound you hear will be this viewer destroying her television. But surely not. Mysteries are afoot. Jon’s assistant hides a note he left Delilah and deletes files from his computer. Perhaps he was in trouble. Perhaps, in the end, everyone disappointed him with their kvetching and betrayals. Warning: if you start to watch this, you will have to stay to find out.

A Million Little Things, Sky SoHo, Tuesday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.