Reese Witherspoon has done it again – with her latest TV show, co-produced by and co-starring Kerry Washington, she cloaks high-minded themes in a high-class soap, writes Caryn James.
With Little Fires Everywhere, Reese Witherspoon proves herself to be the queen of socially-resonant melodrama, as producer and star. Like the two seasons of Big Little Lies, with its theme of domestic abuse, and the first season of The Morning Show, with its timely, astute take on sexual harassment and complicity, her new series cloaks high-minded themes in the engaging, guilty-pleasure style of a soap opera. That combination makes it an unguilty pleasure.
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In this adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling 2017 novel, Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a married mother of four teenagers, and part-time journalist, who exudes privilege. Kerry Washington – her production company, alongside Witherspoon’s, is also behind this – is Mia Warren, a poor artist and single mother who arrives in town in a battered car with her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. The women inevitably clash, in a story fraught with issues of class, race and motherhood.
A key change from the source novel is that Mia is black, which allows the show to address race in a pointed way
Like its source, the series is set in 1997 in the pristine planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (an actual place), where it begins with a scene of high drama. Flames consume Elena’s large house on a freezing December night. Her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) and three of their children huddle with her outside, but their rebellious youngest daughter, Izzy, has vanished and is suspected of setting the fire. The story then moves back four months, when Mia rents an apartment in a house that Elena owns. Little Fires takes too long to set up who these characters are, but it takes off in episode three. (You can binge the first three instalments when they drop on Hulu on 18 March in the US, but after that the remaining five will arrive weekly.)
A key change from the novel, however, is that Mia is black, which allows the show to address race in a pointed way. It still features a range of mother-daughter dynamics – some toxic, some comforting, and not all of them between biological parents and children. Elena is a perfectionist, colour-coding her children’s lunch bags, snooping and interfering in other people’s lives. Witherspoon has mastered this kind of character, who would have been more surprising if she hadn’t played a slightly less rigid version of her in Big Little Lies.
Mia is blunt to the point of rudeness, devoted to Pearl, and clearly guarding secrets. Washington’s potent, uncompromising performance doesn’t soften her character, but suggests the pain that must be behind it. Elena, oblivious to her own noblesse oblige attitude, offers Mia a job as her housekeeper. Mia glares with hostility and says: “You mean, like to be your maid?” The racial tension is as pertinent now as in 1997. Mia takes the offer, and when things go very wrong later in the series spits out: “White women always want to be friends with their maid. I am not your friend, Elena.”
View image of (Credit: Hulu)
Mia has accepted the job so she can keep an eye on Pearl, who has become enamoured of the entire Richardson family. In one of many sharp, telling details, all the Richardson children have preppy nicknames. Moody, shy and bookish, falls for Pearl, but she falls for his jock brother, Trip, and idolises their cheerleader sister, Lexie. Pearl and her mother have traipsed around the country, staying in places a few months at a time, and Pearl longs for the stable, glossy life into which she suddenly becomes absorbed.
Pearl’s coming-of-age is a major part of the series, and Lexi Underwood plays her with great naturalness, capturing the yearning and confusion of a girl who is book smart yet easily influenced. Another standout story belongs to Izzy, beautifully played with bottled-up ferocity by Megan Stott. Izzy singes her hair to annoy her controlling mother and stomps around the house, yet she is utterly sympathetic because she is sensitive, and bullied at school, taunted by classmates who suspect she is gay.
So many mysteries are teased that the strategy becomes annoying. Unanswered questions begin to pile up
It’s no wonder these girls essentially trade mothers. Pearl becomes close to Elena, and Izzy helps out as Mia’s art assistant. The show cuts closest to the bone as it explores these relationships. Each woman thinks the other is stealing her daughter’s affection. Each daughter rejects the person her mother is. “You are not your mother, OK?” Elena reassures Pearl, addressing a fear common to many daughters in real life.
The flashback structure is effective, although occasional glimpses of Mia as a young woman, played by Tiffany Boone, can be confusing. And so many mysteries are teased that the strategy becomes annoying. Unanswered questions begin to pile up: who is the man in Mia’s nightmares who seems to be stalking her on a New York City subway? Why is the photograph hanging over her fireplace, an abstract composition that seems to depict a woman’s waving arms, so meaningful to her?
The series becomes overloaded with mothers and daughters when Mia befriends an illegal immigrant from China who was so desperately poor she left her baby at a fire station. That subplot is jammed in via a ludicrous coincidence, and becomes an excuse for every female character to declaim self-importantly about what it means to be a mother. But while Little Fires is more soap opera than art, it redeems the form with its vivid characters and their outsized, reality-adjacent lives.
Little Fires Everywhere launches on Hulu on 18 March
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