[Note: This review originally published on March 4th]
“You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices! Options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.”
That’s Mia (Kerry Washington) screaming to Elena (Reese Witherspoon) during the emotionally charged fourth episode of the new Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere.
The line sums up the crux of a series that explores the complicated themes of race, wealth, and motherhood with a delicate aplomb. Based on the Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, the eight-episode series follows the sequence of events that occur when Mia moves to the storied community of Shaker Heights, Ohio with her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) in 1997.
Proudly the first planned community in America, Shaker Heights is the kind of place that measures your grass and fines you if it gets more than six inches tall. The kind of place that airs a siren letting all the kids know that trick or treating is over and it’s time to go home. Think Wisteria Lane without the murders.
Mia is an artist and an enigma. She and her daughter never stay in one community too long. Mia claims it is for her work but her guarded demeanor hints at other reasons. She rents an apartment in the building Elena owns. Elena is a close cousin of the characters Witherspoon has played in both the 1999 movie Election and the more recent Big Little Lies. Elena’s life is very controlled. No matter how steamy things get, she only has sex with her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “It’s so much more fun when we plan it,” she tells him. She measures how much wine she drinks—both counting calories and alcohol consumption. She drinks diet Snapple and Slimfast and weighs herself every morning.
Elena says things like “If you can’t handle being a mom, then don’t get pregnant.” Casually condescending without even realizing it, she offers Mia the chance to be her maid. But Elena, who will tell anyone that she’s a reporter for the local paper (having set aside her dreams of writing for The New York Time), isn’t an awful person. And the strength of this nuanced series lies in the fact that these complex characters are not wholly good or wholly bad. Money and privilege, while severely impacting the rose-colored way in which they view the world, doesn’t make them evil. And lack of money doesn’t make Mia instantly noble and saintly.
Only child Pearl is instantly taken with the Richardson children. There’s popular Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) who is willing to exploit Pearl for her personal gain; womanizing jock Trip (Jordan Elsass); sweet, sensitive Moody (Gavin Lewis ) who can barely contain how smitten he is with Mia; and troubled Izzy (Megan Stott) who refuses to conform to the Shaker Heights ways and is angry at everyone and everything, especially her mother. The young cast members, who often bear the weight of the storytelling, are stellar.
Elsewhere, Elena’s friend Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt) has struggled with infertility for years and has finally adopted a baby with her husband Mark (Geoff Stults). Their lives have been wrecked by miscarriages and still births. Their adopted daughter Mirabelle is the answer to years of prayer and heartache. Meanwhile, Mia’s co-worker Bebe (Huang Lu) decides to fight for custody of the baby she abandoned. The mother-focused stories continue, and eventually come to a boil: these proverbial “little fires everywhere” become harder and harder to extinguish as the series progresses.
But the heart of the series is its ability to explore these themes without judgement. DeWitt is particularly effective as woman who has suffered while watching her best friend Elena easily carry four healthy children to term. Bebe’s plight of not having the financial ability to care for her daughter, but loving her fiercely, and thinking abandonment was her best and only option is heartbreaking.
The series is set in the 1990s, and while that backdrop is not overt it’s very present. People still read newspapers and go to the video store. Lexie bases when she wants to have sex with her boyfriend on when Brenda and Dylan did the deed on Beverly Hills, 90210. The school’s computer lab uses dial up. Elena’s book club is reading The Vagina Monologues. But the show could be sent in the present day. Its themes, particularly those surrounding what defines motherhood, are timeless. The conversation around race and privilege are perhaps even more relevant today than the era in which the show is set.
Washington is fantastic as Mia. Her hard, angry exterior barely conceals her vulnerability. She’s a fiercely protective mother who may not always make the best choices but always wants what is right. Witherspoon, who is building a little TV empire with Big Little Lies, The Morning Show and Little Fires Everywhere, has perfected the entitled character who is blind to her own entitlement, living a life that is so controlled and carefully cultivated that she may have even lost sight of what she truly wants in life. But when Elena says that she’s “just trying to raise nice children who do good in the world,” you believe her. Together, these elements ignite to form a show well worth watching.
Little Fires Everywhere premieres March 18 on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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