Little Fires Everywhere

3 out of 5

Developed by: Liz Tigelaar

There are points when Hulu’s miniseries adaptation of Celeste Ng’s book, Little Fires Everywhere, really feels like it’s going to dig in deep and hit hard.  …And then it becomes a TV show.

Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is white, blond, perky, mother-of-four, married-to-a-lawyer, cool and collected, and all-around “perfect” seeming, living in the gated-ish community of Shaker Heights during the 90s.  Her first indirect interaction with Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) – black, single mother of one, with a sneer to counter Elena’s smiles – is when spotting her camped out in her rundown car in the neighborhood, at which point she calls the cops on her as a derelict.  Her first direct interaction is in her capacity as a landlord of sorts in Shaker, showing a home to Mia.  She recognizes the car; she realizes what’s occurred, and she immediately starts making compromises to the price and the neighborhood’s strict rules to accommodate the rather terse Mia and her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood).

Scenes are interwoven: when the cops approach Mia in her car, and her immediate instructions to her daughter to keep their hands in sight; the fractured family dynamics of the Richardsons, with the football player son and prom queen daughter balanced out by a son appropriately nicknamed “Moody,” and Izzy (Gavin Lewis and Megan Stott, respectively), the always confrontational rebel.  Mia is brusque and demanding with Elena, but she’s all love and affection with her daughter.  Elena is fully in control of her world, with a color-coded calendar, but her husband (Bill, played by Joshua Jackson) rolls his eyes at her, and Witherspoon – quite perfect at these types of roles – pitches the character with the painful-to-watch realism of those who operate almost fully fueled on the approval of others; it’d be pitched as comedy from a different actress, but Witherspoon grounds it in a way that’s awfully recognizable – this is someone you know.

As we get to know a bit more about the two, and their present worlds, these worlds further cross over: Mia tends to move from town to town in pursuance of, we’re told, her main career as an artist, but agrees to stay in Shaker at the behest of her daughter, taking a job as – essentially – Elena’s maid to supplement her additional earnings as a waitress.  Izzy, outcast at school and at war with her mother, finds solace in Mia’s presence and is inspired by her work, while Pearl, fascinated with the Richardson childrens’ lives, starts spending more time at their house, and soon ditches the Goodwill attire and living for nicer clothes and a popular-kid lifestyle.

This is all very well orchestrated, with some killer square-offs between Elena and Mia where race and class discussions are both tossed right on the surface but also burble dangerously right beneath, further paralleled by different interrelationships between the kids.  Elena is “bad” and Mia is “good,” but we’re given different sides of their stories to shade that with some grey, and Little Fires Everywhere makes good on how it pitches the meaning of its title, showing us all of the small, day-to-day tolerations that can suddenly pitch into a blaze.  The 90s setting also gives us just enough remove to a time when it was “okay” to be gay and we “didn’t” judge people by the color of their skin, and yet it’s so, so clear how weighty and prevalent all of that sexism and racism was, and – hopefully – rings true for viewers through to today, to make you stop and think on your casual thoughts and actions and how they can be perceived.

All of that’s pretty gripping stuff, with some pretty excellent performances all around – Lexi Underwood and Megan Stott both being particular standouts.

Ah, but, the show actually started with a fire.  The Richardson’s house has been set abalze; Izzy is nowhere to be found and is being blamed.  We then flash back to the above events.  And after a few episodes of this, another angle is introduced: a woman Mia works with gave up her baby during dire times, leaving it in front of a firehouse, and Mia realizes that the child has been adopted by one of Elena’s friends.  The woman now wants her baby back, and Mia helps to make that happen, leading to a legal battle between the baby’s birth mother and her adoptive one.  This seems like a subplot at first – there’s so much other meaty stuff – but becomes a parable for other things, leading to a flashback episode in which we learn more about Elena’s and Mia’s pasts.  There’s another subplot with abortion, and one with dating secrets.  It becomes clear that all of these subplots are actually the plot, and we’re still ticking toward the whodunnit of that fire.

This is the show revealing itself as… just another TV show.  One with audience-baiting mysteries, and over-stuffed ideas to drive points home… without ever really making a point.  Having not read the book, I don’t know how much of the structure or plotlines were inherited, but I kept thinking, as we wrapped around the story to “reveal” things in gasp-worthy moments, how much more powerful Little Fires Everywhere would be if it just told its story straight.  There’s really no reason to kick off with the fire, and there’s really no reason to hide some of the things that it does, except that it makes for “better” TV, meanwhile sidelining some of the riskier elements it initially seems to be tackling.

For what it is, I do think it’s smartly put together, and Witherspoon is just frighteningly good in her role… (although perhaps that’s because it hits really close to home for me) I just wish the show wasn’t distracted by the usual TV beats, and had instead maintained its sharper edges.