tv review

Little Fires Everywhere Almost Matches the Novel’s Incendiary Power. Almost.

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere. Photo: Courtesy of Hulu

As soon as Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was published in 2017, it was a clear contender for the title of “the next Big Little Lies.” Lo and behold, a few months later, a TV adaptation was announced, with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, the latter a producer and star of Big Little Lies, producing and starring in the limited series version of Ng’s novel. Now, that limited series is here — the first three episodes drop Wednesday on Hulu, with another to follow each week — and does seem bound to appeal to the same audience that was drawn into the stories of Monterey moms trafficking in gossip and dark, well-kept secrets.

There are elements in Little Fires Everywhere that, unwittingly, echo that HBO Emmy winner. The series opens with a horrific incident — the burning of the Richardson family home — and a sense of mystery about who is responsible for it and why it happened. It takes place in a town, Shaker Heights, Ohio, that is predominantly white and quite proud of its capacity to raise well-educated, upwardly mobile children. In its study of Elena Richardson (Witherspoon), poster woman for the ultra-organized, tightly wound working mother, and Mia Warren (Washington), an artist and single mom who moves to Shaker Heights and rents an apartment from Elena, it raises questions about who makes a fit parent and how race and class factor into those perceptions. Their relationship also provides fodder for plenty of charged confrontations and tense moments. Spoiler alert: The privileged, racist-but-doesn’t-know-it white woman and the free-thinking, take-no-b.s. black woman don’t get along.

Little Fires Everywhere doesn’t quite feel like a carbon copy of Big Little Lies, for reasons both good and bad. It is set in 1997, and is much more blunt in its critique of elitism and the ways in which members of the white upper class pass on their sense of entitlement to their kids. But as the episodes progress, more melodramatic touches creep in and the sense of nuance that made Ng’s book such an intelligent page-turner fades a bit. Especially in later episodes, the series — created by showrunner Liz Tigelaar, whose credits include Casual and Bates Motel — shoves its key thematic points to the forefront rather than invoking them more subtly.

Elena and Mia are the primary figures, but just as in the novel, the dynamic between them has ripple effects. Pearl (Lexi Underwood), Mia’s daughter, immediately befriends Elena’s son Moody (Gavin Lewis) and becomes a regular fixture in the Richardson house, eventually becoming friends with Moody’s older siblings Lexi (Jade Pettyjohn) and Trip (Jordan Elsass). Mia takes a part-time job as a housekeeper for the Richardsons, primarily so she can keep an eye on Pearl. In the process, she attracts the attention of Izzy (Megan Stott), the youngest Richardson sibling, who becomes intrigued by Mia and looks to her as the mentor she doesn’t have in her own mother, with whom she has an especially fraught relationship.

All of this makes for a powder keg of jealousy, resentment, and mistrust. But when a custody battle arises that affects Elena’s best friend, Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Bebe (Huang Lu), a co-worker of Mia’s at her restaurant job, the relationships between all parties, including Elena’s husband Bill (Joshua Jackson), become more complicated and more dicey.

If you haven’t already sensed this, Elena is the kind of part that was practically designed in a scientific lab focused on creating perfect roles for Reese Witherspoon. Elena is uptight, uncompromising, stubborn, and so damn nosy that she makes Madeline Mackenzie, Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies altar ego, seem like a total novice in the field of meddling. Witherspoon knows exactly how to play this kind of woman, one who tells others and herself that she’s only trying to do the right thing. When she does things like ask Mia to serve food to other mothers at a book club meeting, it doesn’t even occur to her how demeaning her request is. (It also doesn’t occur to her, or anyone else there, that Mia will understand The Vagina Monologues better than anyone else in the room.) As her curiosity about Mia takes on more suspicious undertones, Elena evolves into more of a clear-cut villain, but Witherspoon makes her believable even when she does things that defy rationality.

Washington has a much more complex character to work with as Mia, who has a secret past that she’s kept hidden from her own daughter, prompting her and Pearl to move on a regular basis for reasons that aren’t clarified until the latter half of the season.  Washington’s performance is built around the things she isn’t saying. Her ability to telegraph Mia’s anguish, rage, and desire to protect Pearl without words is achieved with a powerful sense of understatement.

The young actors are all convincing, and actually seem like real teenagers. Stott in particular gives real sense of dimension to Izzy, who could easily have been a caricature of an angry goth ’90s adolescent. She shares a fantastic scene with Washington in the seventh episode that is one of the more moving moments in the whole series.

While Tigelaar and the writers generally follow the basic plot points from the novel, especially in the initial three episodes, they also deviate from it in significant ways. That includes flashbacks that tell us more about Elena’s and Mia’s lives as younger women, a move that introduces an entirely new piece of backstory for Elena that’s supposed to demonstrate the sacrifices she’s had to make on her motherhood journey. Ultimately, those new details feel unnecessary. It’s much more affecting to keep Elena’s behavior shrouded in some mystery that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about her. (Elena works at Shaker Heights’ small newspaper but acts like she’s an investigative reporter at the New York Times. That speaks volumes about her self-image without the audience needing to learn what led her to that job.)

The directorial and writing choices in the latter episodes — I’ve seen seven of the eight — take the material into soapier territory, with frequent shouting matches and lingering close-ups of Elena or Mia throwing darts at each other with their eyes. If I hadn’t read the novel, these things might have bothered me less, but it’s hard not to contrast the series with the more spare tone of Ng’s writing.

What Little Fires Everywhere has in common with its source material, though, is its ability to hook you in from the beginning. Even though I had read the book, I still became absorbed in the series from the first episode and felt my blood pressure go up every single time Pearl perceives that one of the Richardsons sees her as an equal, then experiences the electroshock of their unconscious racism. Little Fires Everywhere is an effective, well-acted drama with some moments of real depth. Those moments of real depth just made me wish it achieved such moments more consistently.

Little Fires Everywhere Almost Matches the Novel’s Power