As A Million Little Things airs its fifth and final season on ABC, it has come time to reminisce about the beginning. The series, which made its debut on Sept. 26, 2018, follows the lives of eight friends who became a tight-knit family motivated to enrich each other after the unexpected death of a close friend.
Created by writer/creator/producer DJ Nash, the show was wholeheartedly embraced, and like all great serial dramas, the audience became extremely invested in the characters and their fictional worlds. To bring you up to date entering Season 5, which kicked off last week, the friends are rallying around Gary (James Roday Rodriguez), who is battling lung cancer, while a very pregnant Maggie (Allison Miller), aka Bloom, is questioning her mothering capabilities. Elsewhere, Eddie (David Giuntoli) is helping his girlfriend Anna (Erin Karpluk), newly released from prison for the accidental murder of her predatory husband, begin a new life, and Rome’s (Romany Malco) father is having memory issues.
Executive producer and showrunner Terrence Coli joined the series in its third season back in March 2020 at a time when television production came to a standstill because of the pandemic, which brought with it extra challenges in addition to being the new kid on the block, so to speak.
At the start of Season 4, Coli was named showrunner, and his love of family dramas and experience working with ensemble casts surely helped him adjust to the position. Coli’s colleagues have called him the “Nicest Man in Hollywood,” and the seasoned industry professional began his entertainment career as a CBS page for the network’s prized game show The Price Is Right, which launched his career in television and makes for quite the story.
As a writer, Coli penned the family drama Providence and co-wrote the TV movie Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance. He soon segued into co-executive producing and then executive producing (Sorry for Your Loss, The Village), though he remains well known for his work on long-running ensemble dramas such as One Tree Hill, 90210, and Switched at Birth, to name a few.
Above the Line spoke with Terrence Coli via Zoom video from his home in Los Angeles. Knowing the platform all too well, he spoke about navigating writers meetings in the Zoom room for A Million Little Things during the height of the pandemic and getting to see sides of them he might not have otherwise. A writer himself, Coli discussed how the writers’ personal lives have always been the fabric of the show’s storylines. For example, his own recent marriage and new blended family made their way into several episodes. Coli also talked about the challenges of being a first-time showrunner and what he’ll miss most about A Million Little Things.
Above the Line: Tell me how you got your start in television.
Terrence Coli: When I first came out to Hollywood, I was just looking for whatever job I could find, and I ended up at the employment window at CBS TV City. I applied for a job, got it, and got my red polyester page uniform. The very first day I was working at TV City, I worked on The Price is Right. My job was to basically write out those price tag names on the price tags. We had a really specific font; the other pages taught me how to do it.
I was working at the foot of the stage while we were taping, and the whole job of the page was to basically make sure that the right person came down to Contestant Row. The page was supposed to look at the producer, and the producer would go, ‘Yeah, that’s the right person that we picked out of the crowd to be the next contestant.’ So whoever gets called down that day — and she’s so excited to be called as a contestant, as you can imagine on the show — she sprints down the aisle, grabs me, and kisses me, and I turn as beet red as my page uniform. And [host] Bob Barker said, ‘I’d like to have you meet a happy page right here.’ Then the camera cuts to me, and I’m all embarrassed.
Then I went on my five-minute break, and I’m sitting out in the back on a park bench outside the stages, and another page comes busting through; maybe 10 minutes later, he’s like, ‘Dude, Bob, he’s calling for you.’ I go back in and start walking down the aisle. Bob has basically asked from the stage, ‘Let’s get that page back out here. What’s his name? Perry? This is Terry, right?’ I’m, like, a 21-year-old kid from Illinois; this could not be more embarrassing for me, but I’m walking down the aisle, and he goes, ‘I just found out that it’s this page’s first day at CBS, and I just wanted to introduce you all… Welcome to Hollywood!’ The camera cuts to me, and I sort of do a wave and a bow, and the crowd is cheering, and then I go disappear, and it aired on TV just like that. That was my first day on the job [in] TV.
ATL: Wow, what a great story. Where did you go from there?
Coli: I was a page for maybe five or six months, and then I got a desk job, and then I started getting jobs as a writer’s assistant, and I was working on my own scripts at that point, and I just kind of worked my way through the ranks. You did pretty much every job on a writing staff. I was getting lunches and getting coffee; I did all of that on an old show called Touched by an Angel. I’m 47 years old, so I moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest in 1997. I just worked on some great ensemble dramas, and that’s where I’ve been able to kind of hang my hat. It’s been my favorite kind of TV, and I feel really lucky to write character dramas.
ATL: Well, right off the bat, I have to tell you I’m a big fan of A Million Little Things.
Coli: Thank you so much for saying that. It’s really special when [I] meet people who love the show because the people who love the show love the show. I recently met somebody who was a fan, and I run into people in the strangest places. I was actually at physical therapy, and the guy who was working on my impinged shoulder was like, ‘So what do you do?’ I’m like, ‘I’m a writer,’ and he says, ‘What shows do you work on?’ And I was like, ‘I’m just wrapping up this series that I’ve been on for three years… A Million Little Things.”‘And he was like, ‘Oh my god!” So it’s always gratifying when that happens.
ATL: I always thought this show would go on for 10 years. So what happened?
Coli: It’s funny; it’s becoming increasingly rare in this day and age that an ensemble, serialized drama lasts more than five years. Earlier in my career, you saw that more. I did a few shows that lasted over five years. But, truthfully, I think DJ Nash, who created the show and ran it for the first three seasons, always felt like there were five seasons of story. And when I showed up on day one at the beginning of Season 3, he pitched me where he thought the series was going to end. I was like, “That’s brilliant.” We have to do that.
And so truly, from that moment on, the last three years on the show have been charting a course for this final season. We just feel really lucky that we got to plan it that way and that we get to execute it that way, because not all shows do. You know, sometimes you get canceled before you can tell the rest of the story. So to be able to choose the ending and chart a course for the ending and have ABC support that, we just feel really blessed.
ATL: I don’t think you could have planned to come aboard a show right in the middle of a pandemic, so can you talk about being the new kid on the block, so to speak, and then have something like that happen?
Coli: Yeah. We started Season 3 on Zoom, and none of us knew how to make that work. This is a show that is built from the authentic moments that happen in our writers’ lives. People come into this room, the physical room, to tell their stories and share the terrifying things that have happened to them, the painful things, their trauma, their joy, [and] the best moments of their lives. And we sort of mine all of that for a story. And so, to come into a room virtually, we just didn’t know if people would be able to push through the limitations of the technology to continue to do that.
But I think what happened with the pandemic was that we were all feeling pretty raw, right? We were all separated from our families and our friends, and if anything, that bonded us even more and gave us, I think, a little more permission to be real with what was going on. I don’t think that we were alone in that. I think that was happening all over the world, really. People were discovering how to connect virtually, you know? And so we started breaking stories that way, and we never went back. Some of this was due to COVID constraints. We are now in the process of breaking the tie. I stepped out of that virtual room to come to this virtual room to have this conversation.
ATL: What are the challenges of still working virtually?
Coli: It’s still not without its challenges, but we’ve been able to meet as writers for a couple of lunches in L.A., and there’s more face-to-face contact than there certainly was at the beginning. But we’ve gotten pretty adept at getting the job done this way, I have to say. You know, you learn things about people’s lives from seeing what’s happening in their backgrounds, right? My kids will come in after school and come in to say hello and check in, and they know all of my co-workers in a way that they wouldn’t if I was disappearing to go to the studio lot. The dog comes in. We know each other’s pets. In some cases, we know too much about each other’s personal habits, but it’s been a real learning curve. It definitely has its pros, I’d say.
ATL: I know DJ is sort of famous for giving everyone a shortened name. What have been some of the inside names that you call each other?
Coli: He calls me TC, which started when I was a kid. I was Top Cat from the old TV show. Terrence Coli… “Top Cat,” they used to call me. We go by a lot of initials for some reason on this show, mainly because we do a lot of our work via text. Right. So it’s like, “Hey, I was talking to E. L., I was talking to M.L., I was talking to C.L.” There are a lot of “L” last names. So I think we just tend to do the initial thing a lot because it’s a shorthand. The title of the show is always shortened to “M.L.T.,” so there’s your “L.”
ATL: Did D.J. share with you why he decided to hand the showrunner reins over to you?
Coli: He’s a brilliant guy, and he’s got tons of ideas. I believe he was working on his development with Capitol and other studios at the time I arrived. I very much expect that the next DJ Nash show is going to be on the air very soon, and that’s what he’s been able to work on. This is the first time I’ve ever run a show — Season 4 — so having D.J. around as sort of my big brother to just kind of keep an eye on things and make sure, if I ever had an issue [or] if something came up, I could always go, ‘Look, you created this world; help me figure out how to navigate this story problem I’m having.’ And he was more than happy to come.
He’s still writing a lot for the show. And actually, the other thing that he’s been able to do because he’s been able to give up the reins a little bit is that he’s directing now. He directed an episode in Season 4, and now he’s directing two episodes of Season 5. It’s a pretty tricky thing to go direct when you’re also trying to run it, you know?
ATL: So what was the most surprising thing for you that you learned about being a first-time showrunner that you didn’t know you had to do?
Coli: Oh, it’s 300 decisions every day! That’s what it feels like. It is just constant decision-making. I’ve been in position two on other people’s shows for 10 years, including D.J.’s in Season 3, and ultimately that job is about gauging. You’re kind of the fulcrum between a showrunner and a writing staff, and you’re trying to sort of manage up a little bit and manage down at the same time and make sure everyone’s feeling heard and that those messages are being delivered. But ultimately, you are trying to fulfill someone else’s vision.
So, I think when I first got into the chair and realized, “Oh, it really truly is like I’m here to guide this,” I had to go by my gut and my instinct. What I tell people is that sometimes it’s better to make a decision and live with the consequences of that decision than to waffle on a decision because we’re moving so fast. It’s all a bit subjective. In storytelling, there is no such thing as right or wrong. So it’s been about trusting my gut and listening to the small, still voice that is saying, “Go this direction,” and trusting that and trusting people’s passion. You know, you have writers on staff who are bringing their stories, and when they say they’re passionate about something, my ears perk up because I think that’s worth chasing.
ATL: As a writer yourself, have any of your personal stories dribbled into the show a little bit?
Coli: Yeah. I was newly married last year and blended my family with my new partner, so a lot of that has made its way onto [the] screen with Katherine (Grace Park) and her new partner (Greta, played by Cameron Esposito), the new person she’s living with, and those Theo stories are very often derived from stories with my children. That’s just one way.
I mean, I think we’re all so invested in each of these characters. And the great thing about these characters that DJ created is that you see a little bit of yourself in each one of them. I have two kids. Gary (James Roday Rodriguez) and Maggie (Allison Miller) are both pregnant now, so those stories are very much coming from myself and other parents in the Zoom room who went through that very intense experience. The things that are challenging about your relationship with your partner are that you’re trying to invest all of your hopes and dreams and wisdom in one little new person, but you have someone next to you who maybe doesn’t quite see it the same way.
ATL: This is kind of like a nighttime soap opera, and I mean that in the best possible way. We love these characters so much and we’re so invested in them. Do you think you could have told some of these storylines, let’s say, two years ago, or do they just fit the current time?
Coli: There were certainly things from COVID that we wrote right into the show, right? The fact that Delilah went to France and couldn’t get back, and families were being ripped apart. I think we were mining our personal experiences in the world at the time. Those aspects of the storytelling were current and of the time. I believe there are times when it is a little more dramatic, shall we say, with push-out moments and perhaps soapier moments, but I enjoy that type of television. I always have.
What I also love about A Million Little Things, which I feel is really unique to this show, is that we’re always pushing to be just as funny as we are dramatic. We’re looking for the joke. When you think we’re going to go for the dramatic moment, we go for the joke. When you think we’re going to go for the joke, we find a dramatic moment. I think that’s what makes it feel so real to our fans — that we can find the funny in the midst of this sadness, and vice versa.
ATL: Now I have to know what it feels like to be the nicest man in Hollywood.
Coli: [laughs] Who said that?! I don’t know if that’s true. I think how you make a show is just as important as the show you make. And I think to have a show where these characters are invested in each other’s lives and are taking care of each other, and the friend group is sort of the family onscreen, it has to feel the same behind the scenes. The cast loves each other. I think I’m going to take this goodbye really hard, like the rest of us.
ATL: I’ve been crying since the first episode. I can’t imagine how you’re all dealing with the end.
Coli: I think that tone has been set from the very beginning, before I ever got here, and it’s just been me standing on the shoulders of everyone that came before me, truly. I’m going to miss it terribly. I’ve never written on a show like it before, and I hope I get the chance to do it again because it’s been a really powerful ride, both creatively and as a writer, and a great challenge. I love watching characters grow over the course of multiple seasons. The arc that you can build when you have a five-year run is incredible.
Just to think about how far we’ve carried Eddie and the kind of guy he is now compared to the kind of guy he was at the beginning of the series has been really gratifying to watch — watching all the ups and downs of that and really feeling invested in a way that you can’t when you’re sitting in the theater for two-and-a-half hours. And that’s why it’s going to be hard to say goodbye. We have a little gift on the way for our cast and crew. We’re going to have a wrap party, I believe, in Vancouver, where we shoot for Boston. Hopefully, we’ll have an L.A. party around the time of the finale.
ATL: So what will you miss the most?
Coli: [getting a little choked up] The writers. You really get to know people when you’re in a “foxhole,” which is a TV writers room, with them. They share so much of their personal lives. It’s a joy to be able to see those people every day on Zoom. I’m going to miss this particular group of people. I just feel like it is the greatest job in the world to get to go and talk stories with people and share your experience and hear their experience. Somehow, that magic happens, [and] getting to translate that into drama is a pretty damn good job.
Season 5 of A Million Little Things is now underway on ABC, where new episodes premiere on Wednesdays before streaming on Hulu.