Hulu's 'Little Fires Everywhere' keeps the flames relatively low — but Kerry Washington shines

Had the show found its nerve and let the fires of racial resentment and motherhood burn wildly, this could have been the second genuinely remarkable series for Hulu.
Reese Witherspoon as Elena in the first episode of "Little Fires Everywhere."
Reese Witherspoon as Elena in the first episode of "Little Fires Everywhere."Erin Simkin / Hulu
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By Ani Bundel

Reese Witherspoon has hit the motherlode in entertainment. Her production company, Hello Sunshine, seems to have discovered a magic formula for successful movies and television that both appeal to female audiences and tap the star power of older actresses. Her first TV venture, “Big Little Lies,” was an Emmy smash on HBO. Her latest venture, “Little Fires Everywhere,” has now arrived on Hulu, with the first three episodes of eight dropping Wednesday. For fans looking for solid adaptations of bestselling novels, “Little Fires” pairs relatively well alongside Hulu’s other hits. But unfortunately, the series isn’t willing to light the fires large enough, resulting in a spark that fizzles.

For fans looking for solid adaptations of bestselling novels, “Little Fires” pairs relatively well alongside Hulu’s other hits.

“Little Fires Everywhere” arrives at a critical juncture for Hulu, which has found itself struggling with a bit of a split personality. Disney’s buyout of the once-jointly owned broadcast streamer means it now serves multiple purposes. It’s the new home for “FX on Hulu” and the more adult-oriented fare like “American Horror Story” that Disney inherited in the merger with 20th Century Fox. It’s also become a dumping ground for any show the production studio deems “not family friendly enough” for its flagship service Disney+, landing reject shows such as “High Fidelity” and “Love Simon.” On top of all that, Hulu is still the home for female-centered original series such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Harlots.” “Little Fires Everywhere” falls squarely into the last category (though its release window is more in line with HBO’s first season of “Big Little Lies”).

Written by novelist Celeste Ng, “Little Fires Everywhere” is a powerful period piece set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the mid-1990s. It’s a drama of two families whose lives accidentally intertwine, the Richardsons and the Warrens, and how they choose sides when a controversial transracial adoption case tears the town apart.

The Richardsons are your typical 1990s-era middle-class strivers, with Witherspoon starring as matriarch Elena: mother of four, driver of SUVs, hardworking (but part-time) journalist. She is, in short, everything Witherspoon always plays, this time poured into perfectly belted shirt dresses of the time period, with a coif that is just reminiscent enough of Hillary’s second administration aesthetic without being an outright copy. Her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) is a high-powered lawyer. Three out of her four children, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), and Moody (Gavin Lewis), are popular, well-adjusted teens. Only Izzy (Megan Stott) is a rebel; an artistic type who finds her allegedly “successful life” confining.

The novel blows this life up with the arrival of Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood). Elena finds herself renting the upstairs potion of the family’s extra property to Mia, “an artist in need.” And if said artist has to pay the rent by becoming the Richardson family’s semi-unwilling housekeeper, well that’s just a benefit for all. Pearl is such a go-getter, Elena can’t help but want to try to help this poor, fatherless family. Throw in Mia’s friendship with co-worker Bebe (Liz Huang), whose secret will divide the town when it comes out, and the kindling is all there, ready to catch flame.

Throw in Mia’s friendship with co-worker Bebe (Liz Huang), whose secret will divide the town when it comes out, and the kindling is all there, ready to catch flame.

Like with Nicole Kidman and “Big Little Lies,” Witherspoon teamed up with Washington’s production company, Simpson Street, as co-creatives behind this venture. That makes Mia and Elena co-leads, one of the show’s better choices. The series’ choice to bring in Washington as Mia also foregrounds the subject of race in a new way. In the novel, Mia is assumed to be white. By changing the casting, Elena’s constant slightly condescending attitude toward both Mia and Pearl easily takes on racist overtones, and the scenes between Washington and Witherspoon fairly crack with subsumed energy. As Washington quietly bites off, “White women always want to be friends with their maid.”

Unfortunately, this is about as far as anyone is actually willing to push, either in the Warren-Richardson relationship or the adoption issue. It’s a shame too, because Elena’s oblivious villain stylings are the perfect set-up for Witherspoon to subvert her regularly scheduled persona. Instead, Witherspoon’s familiar queen bee character is a mostly hollow climber filled with the worst instincts of the Clinton years. Even as Pearl becomes more comfortable around Elena, discovering a hunger for bourgeois respectability, the series always feels wary of getting too dark.

In contrast, Washington takes the guarded angry role that defined her career in “Scandal” and plumbs new depths. Even better, despite Mia’s inspirational quasi-mothering role in Izzy’s life, Washington easily and gently sidesteps any kind of characterization that might make her a “magical” figure to white people’s coming of age.

Had the show found its nerve and let the fires of racial resentment, motherhood, bio-parents versus adoption, and appropriation burn wildly, this could have been the second genuinely remarkable series for Hulu. Instead it remains stuck in second gear, with many episodes feeling longer than they are as Elena’s upsetting choices endlessly pile on. Perhaps it is the safer choice to keep the flames on low considering how much Hulu has riding on it right now. But considering the incendiary power of the novel, the series is a letdown.