It takes until the third episode of “Little Fires Everywhere” for there to be a significant moment of peace. Izzy (Megan Stott), the youngest and most rebellious of four Richardson children, actually relents to her mother’s wishes and dresses like a “proper” teenager for a school dance. But when she walks downstairs, her shocked mother Elena (Reese Witherspoon) notices a tiny cut marring Izzy’s otherwise pristine appearance.
In just about any other scene of Hulu’s overwrought adaptation, this would be enough to start a fight — Elena would demand perfection, ordering her daughter upstairs to clean up, while Izzy would stubbornly defend the imperfection, mainly to infuriate her mother. The little cut would become a little fire (metaphorically, if not literally), all to add more white-hot fuel to an already sensationalized inferno.
Instead, Elena takes Izzy upstairs and shows her how to shave her legs. That’s all. It’s a muted, tender scene; a ceasefire in the war between mother and daughter, and a rare depiction of a mother teaching her daughter how to shave, rather than the stock example of a father teaching his son. Subjectively speaking, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a scene like this on television, and even though that’s probably not true, its comparative scarcity — and thus its implicit commentary — represents what “Little Fires Everywhere” is constantly chasing.
Based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel and developed for television by Liz Tigelaar, the eight-episode drama is about women, by women, dealing with issues of race, class conflict, sexism, and plenty more. Witherspoon and co-star Kerry Washington, who are also executive producers, tell a story about mothers and daughters and what it means to be both. “Little Fires Everywhere” strives, constantly and with a great deal of passion, to be a weighty, thought-provoking, and significant limited series, but its most profound moments occur when the two stars aren’t chewing scenery and the scripts don’t highlight their points with bright, red markers. What makes for consistent, soapy entertainment also keeps the show from becoming incendiary.
Erin Simkin / Hulu
“Little Fires Everywhere” immediately lives up to its title by posing a simple question: Who burned down the Richardson house? The fire marshal tells Elena and her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) that they found “little fires everywhere,” which indicate someone set the blaze intentionally, possibly with a mind to harm the matriarch sleeping inside. From there, the pilot cuts to its very literal title sequence — where household items like Elena’s sticky-note-filled calendar and a rolling fortune cookie alight in slo-motion — before jumping back in time four months, to show the events leading up to our mysterious suburban bonfire.
It’s here we first meet the other family in “Little Fires”: the Warrens, Mia (Washington) and Pearl (Lexi Underwood). New to Shaker Heights, Ohio, the traveling artist and her teenage daughter apply to rent part of Elena’s extra duplex — an apartment hidden within a house so not to look like it’s an apartment at all, less the neighbors discriminate against renters. Elena explains as much to Mia with the blasé nature of a wealthy white homeowner who only rented when she was studying abroad in Paris, and she can’t quite pin down why her doubts about Mia’s income through art or lack of a husband/father irk the defensive, private, mother.
These are the first jabs in the title fight viewers likely tuned in to see: Kerry Washington, the former Olivia Pope and four-time Emmy nominee, squaring off in a righteous battle against Reese Witherspoon, an Oscar-winning actress who’s perfected the caustic voice of white privilege through “Big Little Lies.” Through their barbarous dynamic, “Big Little Lies” doesn’t disappoint. There are plenty of scenes where Mia and Elena go toe-to-toe, either dropping veiled threats and insults or spitting straight fire, and Tigelaar knows just how to balance their relationship so there are builds to each outburst. Maybe Mia and Elena can be friends? No, maybe not. But they’ll try again for their kids? OK, but it can’t last long — we gotta see them fight!
Erin Simkin / Hulu
“Little Fires Everywhere” loves drama so much you’d be forgiven for going all-in with it — yelling at the screen, mocking whoever loses each verbal sparring match, making fun of all the white people who are so painfully un-woke it makes you hate yourself for using the word “un-woke.” As a nighttime soap, the episodes can be juicy, biting entertainment, but as the drama stacks up, it loses power. Watching Washington dig deep again and again dulls the effect of her quivering lip and trembling voice; seeing Witherspoon wrap her villainous cloak ever-tighter feels suffocating, and somewhere amid the first seven episodes, the fire goes out under a blanket of melodrama.
Not helping things is the period setting. “Little Fires” mainly takes place during 1997, and in case you don’t read the consistent onscreen captions informing you of such, the series won’t go more than five lines without including a ’90s cultural touchstone. At one point, the oldest Richardson daughter, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), starts a scene by talking on a portable landline phone about last night’s premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that she forgot to record on her VCR while looking for a SlimFast in the refrigerator — the soundtrack, the fashion choices, and every bit of mise en scène you can imagine are equally packed with period-appropriate references, and while the dedication to details can be impressive (there’s a movie poster for the 1997 action-thriller “The Jackal” on a bus stop that only appears in the blurry background of one shot), it can also feel like forced nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake; as if the creators knew a million articles would be written about “All the ’90s References in This Week’s Episode” and awards panels would be filled discussing how they found that specific bottle of Diet Snapple or who recorded that moody cover of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy.”
To continue with the series of blunt analogies started by the show, “Little Fires Everywhere” succeeds in small doses. Washington and Witherspoon are compelling leads… until their characters become caricatures. Plenty of lines reveal harsh truths beyond this story — “White women always want to be friends with their maids” should cause shuddering flashbacks to “The Help” — but then their message is over-explained or repeated too many times. The mother-daughter dynamics can be moving and personal… when they’re not twisted into bigger moments of anger than the narrative can justify. Little fires will quickly merge into an overwhelming flame, and even though this is the first scene of the series, Hulu’s adaptation goes right ahead and burns itself out.
“Little Fires Everywhere” premieres its first three episodes Wednesday, March 18 on Hulu. New episodes will be released Wednesdays.