It’s a perfect time for a page-turner.
That could never have been planned when Hulu scheduled its new limited series Little Fires Everywhere, the juicy soap opera/suburban thriller starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington that starts streaming Wednesday.
Celeste Ng’s 2017 scorcher topped bestseller lists on the crest of actual waves, a standout entry in a genre heavily marketed at vacationers and beachgoers voracious for something to devour during the limited time they’re able to devote their attention to it.
Now, of course, we’ve got nothing but time. And, thankfully, a properly addicting series to fill it.
The series starts with a fire, duh. Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) is watching her house burn down. A firefighter comes to find her. There were accelerants all over the house to make sure it caught flame, and fast. In other words, there were “little fires everywhere.” A new record for name-dropping the title?
Who set the tiny blazes is the central mystery of the entire enterprise. Bets are on troubled daughter Izzy (Megan Stott), who has waged teenage war against her family and is nowhere to be found. But if not Izzy, then who?
And what of the little fires flickering all over the Richardsons’ lives, and for that matter, that of Mia Warren—the tenant turned housekeeper of the Richardsons played by Kerry Washington—and her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood)?
Hell, they’re blazing all over the formerly idyllic neighborhood of Shaker Heights, Ohio. How are they all going to be put out? Or maybe it’s about time they burn, leaving the town, its people, and their antiquated values as scorched earth.
The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere released early Tuesday night, and will premiere every Wednesday after that—though if the streamer was smart, it would unload them all now for desperate bingers to lap up.
We’ll admit to grading things on a bit of a curve at the moment, as we imagine those at home clamoring for content might be.
Original sins of the source material are more exposed here—the drama of the teenage children is no more interesting on TV than it was in the book—while a dialing up of the melodrama in order to expand the story to an eight-episode series means counting the novel’s nuance as collateral damage. One too many lines of dialogue double as some sort of personality diagnosis or foreshadowing and land a bit too squarely on the nose, leaving the entire thing a bit bruised.
But the strength of the book is the backbone of the series: there’s so much going on, and it’s all sudsy with soapy drama. (The true strength of the series is Witherspoon and Washington’s dueling knockout performances, sparring partners punching up with fascinatingly different styles.)
There’s the fire, of course, and the family drama going underneath that. And then there’s the fraught relationship between Elena and Mia: the racial tension, the class tension, the privilege, parenting, jealousy, and resentment. Oh, and there’s the false identity. Also the pregnancy secret. And the adoption scandal, the custody case, and the media war. Orbiting all that is the general hormonal nonsense of the kids and their drama, plus the latent rich white lady suburban ennui.
Then, of course, there’s the Big Little Lie. This is a Reese Witherspoon production. You know there’s one of those.
Elena Richardson is a woman who wakes up early every morning, weighs herself, wears ankle weights over her spandex as she wakes up her kids, cooks a full breakfast, and has lunches made and ready to go on the kitchen island, which is roughly the size of Jupiter.
She always pairs her pearls with her cardigan. On her way to her part-time vanity job at the local paper, she bitches on her car phone that the book club passed on Memoirs of a Geisha this month to instead read The Vagina Monologues, because “you know Elizabeth, ever since she started at Planned Parenthood, she’s been so political.”
Elena only allows herself four ounces of wine. Sex with her husband, Bill (Josh Jackson), is on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “You know we’re allowed to have sex on other days?” he says one night, when she stops things from getting hot and heavy. Her response: “But it’s so much more fun when we plan it.”
It is 1997 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the first planned city in America. Facades and propriety are everywhere. In fact, they’re the lifeblood of the town.
The Shaker Heights founding motto is, “Everything can and should be planned to avoid uncertainty and disaster.” Things have always been done a certain way, down to the city’s duplexes being designed to look like single family homes, in order to conceal the stigma of renting.
The only thing more important than keeping lawns trimmed exactly to Shaker Heights code is ensuring that upward mobility is passed down from generation to generation. That order is what Elena loves about the city and her life. And that order is upended—the first match struck against the matchbook, if we’re speaking in the title’s extended metaphor—when Mia Warren arrives.
She’s a nomadic artist, moving with her daughter from town to town, picking up odd jobs and renting small apartments until it’s time to pick up and leave again. Her presence unsettles Elena, as their lives progress from being circumstantially connected—she rents an apartment in an investment Elena owns—to intimately intertwined.
Mia’s daughter, Pearl, goes to school with and befriends the Richardson children and is welcomed into their home and a world of wealth she’s never seen. To keep an eye on her, Mia takes a job as the Richardsons’ housekeeper, and in turn earns the affection of Elena’s daughter, Izzy—affection that Elena is desperate for, but denied.
Mia is someone whose entire worldview disrupts Elena’s, as Elena’s made a life’s work out of ensuring that her own would never have to be questioned—even if she fancies herself a progressive, politically correct ’90s liberal. Did you know her daughter is dating an African-American boy?
Everyone’s relationships are tangled in lies and secrets, false smiles and telling people what they need to hear. Mia’s entire existence in Shaker Heights, in fact, is owed to a lie. A lie that leaves her no choice but to get too involved in the custody case of an adopted child and the immigrant mother who gave her up. It’s the kindling that, by the end of the series, gives the series its name.
It goes without saying that Witherspoon is very good at playing a bitch. She captures the good intentions in a woman’s desire for control, and revels in the lack of filter enjoyed by Queen Bees who buzz around their own safe spaces.
There are merits to looking at Elena Richardson as some sort of Tracy Flick fan fiction, what Witherspoon’s Election character would be like all grown up. And one could certainly see Elena and Big Little Lies’ Madeline Martha Mackenzie being bonded as alumni of the same sorority; Delta Nu, even, to bring Elle Woods into it.
But it’s too much of a dismissal of Witherspoon’s talents to discuss her performance only in terms of those previous roles. She calibrates something fresher here, somehow both villainous and more empathetic than ever before—and in those ways may even be more recognizable than those other characters.
Washington’s Mia exists on a different energy plane. She’s had to, in order to survive in this world. Washington’s work is always forceful and assured, and it’s no different here. But Mia has to navigate the world differently than Olivia Pope on Scandal could, or Kendra in last year’s American Son. That force is powerful, but it’s quiet, still.
Mia doesn’t announce herself, her thoughts, or her feelings. She brings them with her everywhere. You always see them. They weigh her down. She is forced to swallow her pain, swallow her comebacks, swallow her desires. It’s remarkable to see how much—rage, resentment, compassion, yearning, frustration—is telegraphed in tiny flicks of expression on Washington’s face, as Mia buries and soldiers on.
It’s one iconic actress acting against type, and another shading what she does best. For all the imperfections and missteps in adapting the source material, these lead performances are what light the match. It’s the fire you tune in to see burn.