Tiny Beautiful Things Is a Heartfelt Story of Grief, Family, and the Power of Kathryn Hahn

TV Reviews Tiny Beautiful Things
Tiny Beautiful Things Is a Heartfelt Story of Grief, Family, and the Power of Kathryn Hahn

Tiny Beautiful Things isn’t the show you think it will be. It seems important to point that out up front, because Hulu’s marketing department hasn’t exactly done the show a lot of favors. Yes,  the trailers make it look deeply emotionally affecting (which it is!), but they also make the series seem as though it’s part of that very specific genre of nauseatingly saccharine network drama that lives to make its characters suffer and its audience cry as often as possible. (Looking at you, This Is Us and A Million Little Things!) And this is very much not that show. 

Because while the series certainly touches on weighty topics—its eight episodes wrestle with love, death, divorce, forgiveness, loss, adultery, disappointment, and rage—it’s not particularly interested in directing how we, as viewers, feel about them. Instead, much like the prickly advice column on which the series is based, the show is raw, messy, and stingingly direct, choosing to embrace uncomfortable honesty over saccharine sentiment. 

It’s worth noting how genuinely rare that is—after all, our current entertainment landscape isn’t terribly interested in sincerity for its own sake. Cynicism still generally rules the day—save for a few notable exceptions like ABC’s Abbott Elementary or Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, comedies where caring is still presented as an aspirational and necessary act. But unlike so many of the five-alarm Kleenex fests that have come before it, Tiny Beautiful Things isn’t looking to inspire you or make you cry (though it will likely do both). It’s here to remind you that you’re not alone. 

Loosely based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling essay collection compiled from her “Dear Sugar” advice column, Tiny Beautiful Things follows the story of Clare Pierce (Kathryn Hahn), a wife, mother, and writer, whose life is falling apart. Her marriage is in trouble thanks to her decision to give her ne’er do well brother Lucas (Nick Stahl) $15,000 from her daughter Rae’s (Tanzyn Crawford) college fund to save their family home, a choice she made without consulting husband Danny (Quentin Plair). Her day job is in jeopardy after she’s discovered sleeping at the retirement community where she works, and her writing career is stalled. Danny’s bitterly nursing his resentment toward her, Rae is struggling to find her identity with her friends and acting out as a result, and even their marriage counselor seems as though she’s not really on Clare’s side.

So when an old writer friend offers her the opportunity to take over a female-skewing advice column that he, as a middle-aged white male, doesn’t have the range to handle, Clare balks. Her life is in shambles, so how in the world is she in a position to offer advice to anyone else, even ensconced safely behind the column’s anonymous “Sugar” handle? But sometimes the only way out really is through, and it’s ultimately by becoming Sugar that Clare can begin to find a way to answer some of the lingering questions in her own life. 

Throughout its eight episodes, the series includes specific snippets from many of the best of Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” columns, including the titular “Tiny Beautiful Things” and the haunting “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” exploring their broad themes through the painful specifics of Clare’s life and history. From her present-day marital and family struggles to flashbacks detailing her mother’s cancer diagnosis and early death, Tiny Beautiful Things masterfully establishes Clare’s street cred as an expert on love, mistakes, regrets, and loss. 

Kathryn Hahn’s performance in this series is a straight-up revelation, a chaotic, unhinged, and gloriously messy portrayal of a damaged, big-hearted woman that effortlessly shifts between comedy and drama without missing a beat. Her Clare seemingly exists in a constant state of crisis, and her failures are often exacerbated by her own poor judgment and irresponsible choices. Yet, thanks to Hahn’s portrayal—as well as the performance of The Wilds actress Sarah Pidgeon, who plays twentysomething Clare with furious vulnerability and mannerisms that eerily mimic many of Hahn’s own—the character never becomes something as simple as a cautionary tale or, worse, the butt of a joke she’s not in on. Instead, Clare remains a deeply empathetic figure throughout the series, perhaps never more so than in her cruelest and/or most destructive moments. Truly, we don’t deserve the Hahnissance we’re currently living through, but man is it awesome to watch. 

In the end, Tiny Beautiful Things wrestles with the big questions of life, treating concerns ranging from the celestial to the mundane with the same steadfast dedication and wry earnestness, realizing that no answer to any question is ever truly black and white. What is love? Is God real? Should I have kids? How do we heal from hurt? Am I wrong to leave my spouse? What does it mean to really move on? Is it okay for me to eat Chik-fil-A when I know the company is owned by a monster? 

The brilliance of the show isn’t just that it knows there aren’t really any easy answers to these sorts of existential mysteries, but also that figuring them out is the work of every human lifetime, As a result, Tiny Beautiful Things smartly resists the urge to tie everything up into a neat little bow by the time its final credits roll. Though Clare experiences a genuine emotional breakthrough at the end of the season, it doesn’t magically fix everything else that’s wrong with her life. She hasn’t self-actualized her way into being a different—or better—person. Instead, the show offers this strange-but-true comfort: That this, too, is just another step in a journey of many, and it’s okay if we don’t know where it’s all going in the end. Everyone else is just figuring it out along the way too. 

Tiny Beautiful Things premieres April 7th on Hulu.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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