Alibi V.29 No.11 • March 12-18, 2020 

Idiot Box

Mama Drama Hits Hulu

“Little Fires Everywhere” on Hulu

Little Fires Everywhere

Hulu dips its toe into what used to be the TV miniseries but is now known by the industry buzzwords “limited event series” with “Little Fires Everywhere.” The eight-episode series is based on the 2017 Celeste Ng book of the same name. Ng’s family drama became an instant bestseller when actress Reese Witherspoon chose it as her September 2017 book club pick. Unsurprisingly, Witherspoon is now the executive producer and star of the limited event series, which debuts on Hulu.

The series is set in the late-’90s in the seemingly perfect suburban enclave of Shaker Heights. This utopian community is built on strict rules, which go so far as to dictate that grass cannot exceed a height of six inches. Wife and mother Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) is a third-generation resident of Shaker Heights and the perfect embodiment of her community. She’s a guilt-ridden, upper-middle class liberal married to a lawyer and raising four kids. She also works as a part-time writer for the local paper, which gives her an excuse to be a neighborly busybody. “There are rules, and they exist for a reason,” declares Elena with self-righteous zeal. “And if you follow the rules, you’ll be successful.” Elena is so stuck on the straight-and-narrow path that she’ll only have sex with her husband on Wednesdays and Sundays.

One day a single, African-American mother named Mia Warren (Kerry Washington, who also executive produces) shows up in town with her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) in tow. Mia is a bohemian artist who pops from town to town, scraping by on odd jobs and working on assorted multimedia projects. The Warrens and the Richardson clan end up crossing paths when Elena rents an apartment that her parents left to her to Mia for well under market value. The innocently condescending Elena even tries to help out the Warrens by offering Mia a job as her maid—a position she later tries to upsell as “household manager.”

For a chunk of the pilot episode, viewers can be forgiven for thinking this feels an awful lot like the setup to Jordan Peele’s satire-heavy racial divide horror flick Get Out. But “Little Fires Everywhere” is actually interested in Important Drama, along the lines of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” (based on Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel).

We know from the show’s opening sequence that the Richardson home is doomed to burn to the ground due to arson (the literal half of the show’s literal/metaphorical title). Spinning back six months, the ensuing episodes explain how the interaction between the upscale Richardsons and the downmarket Warrens got us to such a catastrophic place. Much of it centers on Pearl (who has grown sick of her mother’s itinerant lifestyle and finds herself idolizing the blond-haired blue-eyed Richardsons) and Izzy (Elena’s youngest daughter, a conventionally rebellious type who chops her hair off, wears black clothing and gives her mom a lot of sass in an attempt to reject her sheltered upbringing).

Witherspoon and Washington are well (or at least appropriately) cast. Much of the story’s emphasis falls, however, on the various teens. Elena’s sensitive son Moody befriends Pearl. Pearl eventually finds herself attracted to Elena’s older son Trip. And rebellious Izzy (Megan Stott) looks like prime suspect No. 1 for that heavily foreshadowed arson. Over the course of eight episodes, we get a welter of issues concerning mothers and daughters and abortions and adoptions and the like. But the show doesn’t build up a lot of steam for its big “secrets.”

We already know from the start of episode one that no one was even injured in that house fire, so it’s clear that the dramatic stakes on “Little Fires Everywhere” are rather low. Those looking to find a substitute for their hardcore “Big Little Lies” addiction aren’t likely to be completely fulfilled by this nicotine patch of a show. Literary roots aside, you could easily mistake this for just about any CW-produced teen soap opera. It’s earnestly mounted, professionally produced and smartly cast. But it’s just not provocative enough to justify its portentous melodrama. “Little Fires Everywhere” has plenty of smoke to go around, but not nearly enough fire.

“Little Fires Everywhere” premieres Wednesday, March 18 on Hulu.