This program aired right after This Is Us, the Emmy-winning and hit NBC series that put on broadcast television something that has been really lacking. Broadcast TV has really lacked in family dramas over the past decade or so. This Is Us revitalized the genre, as it were, and has spurred the green-light of this one and also A Million Little Things on ABC. The problem is that this series and A Million Little Things aren’t really family dramas. They’re friend dramas.
This Is Us is about one family, a family that is connected through those familial bonds. Those familial bonds are a natural and strong, centrifugal or gravitational force that can push and pull people together. That kind of bond doesn’t naturally exist between friends. It’s not to say that those kinds of bonds can’t be formed between friends or a strong centrifugal force can’t exist between friends, but obviously a series has to prove that bond or that force. Otherwise, the show can feel like strings of separate or disparate stories that don’t add up to anything.
Normally, there would be some kind of incident or event that bonds all the friends together. A Million Little Things has that incident or event be a suicide among the friends. Often times, these friend dramas will be workplace shows like cop dramas, medical dramas or legal dramas, so the centrifugal force will be something job-related like a police investigation, a doctor’s diagnosis or lawsuit. Here, it seems as if the centrifugal force is the fact that the group of friends all live in the same building. That’s not a centrifugal force as it is a common area. That’s not enough to bond the characters. Living in the same building isn’t enough of a unifying thing.
Often, having a common living area is the premise for a soap opera. Soap operas can be good family dramas or friend dramas. It just becomes a matter of creating really compelling stories with really compelling characters. Examples of such include the original Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990) or the original Melrose Place (1992). Arguably, the original Melrose Place wasn’t all that compelling when it first started. It became more compelling once it added Heather Locklear as a regular in the second season. That’s not to say that a really compelling character like Locklear’s Amanda Woodward couldn’t be introduced in the first season of a show. It’s just a matter of how the show uses that character. It’s not quite the same as its classification has gone from comedy to drama but Orange Is the New Black had compelling characters from the very first episode. So far, this show doesn’t seem to have those compelling characters. There’s some potential, but I don’t think this show is there yet.
Warren Christie (Chicago Fire and Alphas) stars as Nick Porter, a staff sergeant in the Army who served overseas in the Middle East and ended up losing his right leg. He comes home to New York City where he gets an apartment in the same building as his ex-girlfriend. What we learn is that his ex-girlfriend has a teenage daughter but what that teenage daughter doesn’t know is that Nick is her father. The apartment building is several stories high and Nick moves into the apartment above his ex and his daughter. He reluctantly gets a job at a nearby bar that hosts a lot of veterans and wounded warriors. He feels a little guilty because he chose military over being a dad and his actions overseas resulted in the death of a friend and fellow soldier.
Michaela McManus (Aquarius and Awake) also stars as Sarah Campbell, a nurse and the aforementioned ex-girlfriend to Nick. She’s also the mother to his teenage daughter. She harbors a lot of issues because she’s a single mom and the fact that Nick abandoned her, but she also harbors feelings for him. She’s put off by what he did and the fact that she thinks he has a drinking problem. At the same time, she’s worried what her daughter will think and do if she learns that Nick is her father, as Sarah also worries that her daughter is heading down the same road to becoming a single mother too.
Grace Van Dien (Greenhouse Academy) co-stars as Katie Campbell, the daughter to Nick and Sarah. She reveals that she’s pregnant. Her boyfriend is the son of wealthy parents who at first deny that their son is the father to Katie’s baby. Katie is also worried she’ll end up like her mom, but her relationship with her mom, while rocky, seems to be pretty solid.
Lorraine Toussaint (Rosewood and Orange Is the New Black) also co-stars as Patricia Davis, a social worker who lives in the same building as Nick and Sarah. In fact, she’s married to the building’s manager, Ron Davis, played by Frankie Faison (Luke Cage and The Wire). Ron also manages the bar where Nick got a job. Patricia learns that her cancer has returned. She was in remission before but now her doctors have told her that the cancer is back. She’s a woman of faith but is upset. She doesn’t want people to know about it and how she and her husband deal with it will probably consume much of her story line.
Daren Kagasoff (Red Band Society and The Secret Life of the American Teenager) plays Gabe Napolitano, a law student who is rearing to get his law degree, so he can start practicing. He has a girlfriend but his relationship with her is strained because he has to take care of his grandfather who has been in and out of the hospital. There is a real strain in his relationship with his father who apparently isn’t doing much to help Gabe’s granddad.
Jerod Haynes (Blueprint and Southside With You) plays Ben Jones, an officer with the NYPD. He lives in the same building as Nick, Sarah, Patricia and Gabe. He tries to intervene when another neighbor named Ava Behzadi, played by Moran Atias (The Resident and Tyrant), needs help. Ben sees Ava get arrested by ICE agents. Ben is left to take care of her son, Sami. Later, he posts her bail. He clearly has fallen for her, but it’s not clear as to why.
The story line between Ben and Ava is one weakness this series has thus far. It’s set up to be the opposite. Given the headlines about immigration, including Trump’s travel ban, focusing on Muslim countries, and his border wall on the U.S.-Mexico line, Ben and Ava trying to fight deportation is topical and relevant. However, creator Mike Daniels (Sons of Anarchy and Shades of Blue) loses the power of this story line in the sea of the ensemble. It did seem like more of the characters would be involved in this story line, but, by the third episode, Ben and Ava become an afterthought. When the two kiss in that third episode, I didn’t feel anything because the characters are so underdeveloped until that point.
Gabe’s story line with his grandfather is a real afterthought. I’m almost unsure what role his character will play in the overall grand scheme. He might have a role, but right now, Gabe could be taken out of this series all together and not much would have been lost at least not in the first three episodes. The true focus is the story line between Nick, Sarah and Katie. That story line is a teen pregnancy and a long lost father, which is basic soap opera fodder. Yet, for that to be the main thrust feels lame.
The Heather Locklear of this story could be Lorraine Toussaint. Toussaint is probably the best actor in the entire cast. Yet, the show is built around Warren Christie and Michaela McManus’ characters and puts them more in the forefront. We follow them around more than we follow Toussaint’s character around, which is a shame. Toussaint is a much more lauded and acclaimed actress. We’ll see where the series goes, but the fact that the series isn’t built around Toussaint is a failure here.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Tuesdays at 10PM on NBC.