Celeste Ng’s 2017 book, Little Fires Everywhere, is a novel driven by an underlying sense of chaos that works well for the medium. Both a portrait of Shaker Heights, Ohio—a planned community driven by purpose and order—and an exploration of what it means to be a mother, it was the sort of book that I read in one sitting and wondered in passing when the movie or television series would be made. Three years later, Hulu trotted out Little Fires Everywhere, an eight-part limited series that attempts to capture the sprawling nature of the source material, but ultimately fails. Even Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon cannot reasonably act their way through what is essentially an overstuffed tote bag full of monologues, pointed glances, and ham-fisted commentary on race, motherhood, and privilege.
To say this about the television adaptation is not to disparage the book; the source material, which the show hews to, for the most part, has more flexibility to explore the themes with nuance. But it is clear that Little Fires Everywhere is Hulu’s attempt to capture some of the magic of Big Little Lies—a soapy, melodramatic, prestige television event focused on a small community rife with class and privilege issues. At the opening of the first episode, the physical little fires in question are burning down a large, well-appointed home. The question that the show will answer over the course of eight hours is who is setting the fires and why. From the episodes made available for review prior to the show’s release, it feels clear by the third episode which character started the conflagration, which eliminates part of the fun and points to the limits of the medium. Ng’s writing is spare and leaves room for subtlety, but writing the same material for television means that the melodrama required to sustain the premise becomes suffocating.
Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is a buttoned-up mother of four who dabbles in journalism at the local paper and manages a rental home in the community. Mia Warren (Kerry Richardson) and her daughter Pearl (an excellent Lexi Underwood) are her newest tenants. Mia is an artist with a mysterious past, the details of which are only fully revealed near the end of the series—a move that tracks for drama but does not for viewer satisfaction. The key difference between the book and the series is that Mia is black, which infuses the proceedings with racial tension that, to me, felt gratuitous. The story is set in 1997, which gives some air to Elena’s casual, anachronistic racism, well-intentioned as she may be. Elena is the sort of woman who feels compelled to mention that she marched with Dr. King in Washington whenever her daughter Lexie’s boyfriend, who is black, is at the house. Lexie, who considers herself inoculated against racism because of her black boyfriend, “doesn’t see color.”
Watching this in 2020 feels uncomfortable maybe because these micro-aggressions would be more effectively avoided on a television show now. The racial tension that exists is an extra layer of drama that instead reads too obvious. Washington is a fitting actor for the role, although it is hard to distinguish Mia from Scandal’s Olivia Pope, another woman who shows distress via quivering lips; and the decision to make Mia a black woman seems like partly a result of Washington sharing a production credit with Witherspoon. When Elena’s husband hears that she rented to Mia and Pearl and expresses his discomfort—not because of their race, you see, but not not because of it, either—her response is that it felt “good” to help.
Another part of Elena’s help is to offer Mia a job as a house manager at her home, a role that she clearly spun out of thin air in an attempt to massage the guilt of her own white existence, which plays less prominently in the book because there, Mia is white. It is this connection that draws the families together and provides the rickety framework for the story to unfold. This tension, which would easily carry an entire show, allows Witherspoon and Washington to seethe, stare, and monologue at length but does not allow for their characters’ inner emotions to be refined. Elena is unsympathetic from the start: a brittle evolved Tracy Flick with a chip on her shoulder about her own life decisions and a rigid need to control everything around her, including her daughter, Izzy (Megan Stott). Izzy’s teenage rebellion against her mother’s conformist ways drives her into the arms of Mia, whose enigmatic nature and artistic tendencies she finds comforting and more familiar than what her mother is offering.
In turn, Pearl seeks the comforts of a lifestyle more settled than her own and bonds with Elena’s children, fostering a connection with both Moody (Gavin Lewis), Elena’s mildly rebellious youngest son, and Tripp (Jordan Elsass), his older, more popular and conventional brother Later, Pearl also forms a relationship with Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Elena’s oldest daughter who is molded in her mother’s image: a squeaky-clean blonde who laments about her life of leisure when faced with a prompt for her Yale admissions essay about overcoming hardship.
All of these plot points are largely predictable and unfold in a way that fails to build any sort of anticipation. Drama for drama’s sake ultimately fails because what truly drives drama is a sense of care for the characters involved. Elena is one-note, unlikeable, and completely unsympathetic and Mia’s mysteriousness about her past becomes irritating quickly; the show waits until the fifth episode to reveal backstory, which fills in the blanks, but it is too little, too late. Learning more about these women and their motivations in small, considered doses over the course of the series would engender sympathy, but the lack of clues throughout makes the reveal unsatisfying.
The second, more pressing storyline makes itself apparent by the third episode. Bebe (Lulu Huang), a waitress at the restaurant where Mia also works, finds herself at the center of a parental rights case when she discovers (with the help of Mia) that the daughter she surrendered at a fire station in Cleveland has been adopted by one of Elena’s friends. What unfolds then is a show concerned with mothers and the myriad ways they fail their daughters—a meaty premise that deserves more shine amidst all the other themes vying for attention.