We waste no time setting suburbia on fire. The first shot of Hulu’s latest miniseries “Little Fires Everywhere” follows firetrucks racing towards the burning McMansion of the Richardson family. The titular role jumps out right at the beginning of the series, it’s even said by one of the four nearly identical looking cops at the scene. All we know is the family matriarch, Elena (Reese Witherspoon) is safe, but was in the home when the fire was set. She mutters something about Izzy (Megan Stott), her rebellious daughter, possibly doing it. We don’t know, but we don’t have too much time to dwell on it.
We’re eased into a wonderfully haunting title sequence of beautiful pieces of suburbia iconography on fire as prestige actress names flit about the screen. I knew I was in for a treat when they showed a color coded calendar up in flames (best believe I squealed seeing this set decoration appear later in the Richardson home).
Flashback a year, one quickly realizes everything is set in the 90s. Reese talks on an old car phone, complains about “running out of minutes” and works on a hulking desktop computer. More specifically, “Little Fires Everywhere” takes place in 1997 Shaker Heights, Ohio among an affluent community. How affluent is the community? Let’s just say they’re the type of people to call the neighborhood watch when they see a black woman sleeping in her car nearby. Right off the bat, there’s a specificity to the world of Shaker Heights in the 90s that jumps off the screen. Based on a book of the same name, author Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights and obviously helped translate some of the specificity from the page to screen. Ng serves as a producer on the show, which was written by Liz Tigelaar (“Casual,” “Nashville”).
Our second A-list actress on the marquee — Kerry Washington — is introduced sleeping in her car. She plays Mia Warren, a traveling artist whose life leads her from place to place in a nomadic tradition. Mia isn’t alone though. Her teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), comes along for the ride, but longs for stability. After the Shaker Heights Neighborhood Watch asks Mia and Pearl not to sleep in their car, Mia realizes they need a stable place to crash for a bit. This brings her to the rental property owned by Elena, who happens to be the person who ratted them out. Elena offers them the two bedroom apartment for cheap. Pearl desperately wants the place, as it would be the first time she’s had her own room. Mia eventually relents, though she seems wary of Elena’s niceties. Everything comes with a price, even charity.
Just as we are being introduced to Mia and Pearl, the show takes us back into Elena’s home. A tense family dinner helps define Elena’s relationship to her husband, Bill (Joshua Jackson, never looking more clean-cut), and her four kids. Her eldest two — Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) and Trip (Jordan Elass) — look straight out of a Gap catalog. While they live up to Elena’s high expectations, her other two kids can’t help but fall short. Moody (Gavin Lewis) never got the same confidence and swagger as his older brother, Bill. Meanwhile, Izzy has more than her fair share of both of those qualities. She constantly bristles at her Mom’s attempts to feminize her, opting to more extreme forms of rebellion. This includes eventually setting her hair on fire. Is this why Elena seems to think Izzy is the one that sent her house on fire in the opening scene?
It’s terrific to watch Reese Witherspoon sink her teeth into a woman whose rough edges come from her painstaking efforts to sand them down. All of the moments in the Richardson house feel very specific and well observed. However, we’ve seen stories examine the nuances of racism through the eyes of “well-meaning but problematic” white people. Are the Richardsons the right primary POV for this story?
A chance encounter outside a hair salon gives us one of the strongest scenes between Reese and Kerry. Elena notices Mia in the uniform of a local restaurant, realizing she’s gotten a day job. When Mia informs her she works nights, Elena oversteps and gives Mia some very unwanted career advice. After suggesting she do portraits and weddings, Elena offers Mia a job as the family housekeeper, or house manager as she later corrects herself. Mia sees this well-meaning charity for what it is, white guilt mixed with an obscene power play. Elena wants to help Mia, but she also wants to let her know where she stands. Mia doesn’t assuage Elena of her white guilt. She turns the job down, her dignity in tact. Elena stands there, shattered. This is the quality one expects when you pair two A-list actresses opposite one another.
As fun as it is to watch Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington share scenes, the show spends a considerable time setting up the dynamic between Pearl and the Richardson children. Upon moving in, Moody comes to greet Pearl. The two become instant friends, which leads Moody to invite Pearl to his house for dinner. Pearl marvels at the opulence of the house, which on the outside resembles Emily Gilmore’s home in “Gilmore Girls” and inside feels like Bree Van De Camp’s house in “Desperate Housewives.” Not only is Pearl in awe of the house, she becomes enamored with everyone in the Richardson household. Trip becomes the boy of her dreams. Lexie stands as a vision of what success looks like.
Lexie asks where Pearl is looking at for college, if only to drop that she has her sights set on Yale. When Pearl stumbles over the question, Moody defends her intellect, “she reads ‘The Bell Jar’ for fun.” This leads Lexie to cut deep with her next remark. She tells Pearl she should be fine with colleges because of affirmative action. Don’t worry, dear readers, Lexie has a black boyfriend, so she feels she has the right to say that. It will be interesting to see how Lexie’s relationship plays out in upcoming episodes. Rather than recognize this as wrong, Pearl internalizes these feelings and tries to ingratiate herself more with the family. Her pleasant demeanor and desire to help out earns her the respect of everyone in the home.
More than anyone, Pearl becomes attached to Elena, who represents everything Mia is not. Things seem more carefree and easy at the Richardson household. Pearl attributes this stability to Elena’s parenting, not to the systematic forces that gave her a leg up in life. This dynamic feels ripped straight from “Spanglish,” where housekeeper Flor’s (Paz Vega) daughter Christina (Shelbie Bruce) calls the rich, white family matriarch Deborah (Tea Leoni) the most influential white woman she’s ever met. The parallels between “Little Fires Everywhere” and “Spanglish” only continue as the show goes on. Hopefully the show will manage the waters of race relations better than that project did back in 2004.
What Pearl doesn’t see is the growing rift between Elena and Izzy that comes to a fever pitch before Izzy’s recital. Dressed in an all black ode to grunge, Elena gets in a screaming match with Izzy in an attempt to get her to wear a nice dress. “Nobody wears cutoff jeans to perform with the Cleveland Youth Chamber Orchestra,” Elena shrieks without hearing any of the comedy present in that statement. Izzy puts the dress on eventually, but she also writes in sharpie “Not Your Puppet” on her forehead before going out on stage and defiantly refusing to play.
While Izzy demands most of Elena’s attention, Izzy isn’t the only Richardson child in trouble that evening. Moody continues his courtship of Pearl, getting her a bike and showing her his secret hideout. The two share a nice moment before they are caught by the neighborhood watch and booked for trespassing. Elena and Mia show up at the exact same moment to collect their kids, but have vastly different reactions. Elena gives Moody a tempered scold and thanks the neighborhood watch. Meanwhile, a visibly shook Mia lays into Pearl in front of everyone. This causes Elena to tell Mia, “there’s no reason to be this upset,” crossing a parenting line she didn’t even know was there. Mia gulps down this judgment and takes Pearl back home. Washington sells Mia’s hard to conceal rage in the face of Elena’s ignorance.
When they get home, Mia has her sights set on leaving Shaker Heights. Pearl cries, asking Mia to be more like Elena. “We don’t get passes like them,” Mia growls at Pearl. She expresses a multitude of feelings in just this one line reading. Mia feels angry towards the life that Elena seems to have stumbled into. She feels betrayed by her daughter’s lust for the shiny objects in Elena’s home. Most of all, she’s mad as hell that the world works differently for her and Pearl, compared to any member of the Richardson household. This is the kernel of truth to “Little Fires Everywhere” which I hope they continue to explore from Mia’s perspective in coming episodes.
Even after this mother-daughter fight, the sequence ends with Mia and Pearl knocking on the wall that separates their two rooms. It’s a beautiful portrait of a mother and daughter who are so intrinsically close, but going through a period of adjustment and strife. Mia knows she can’t run from the Richardson’s and their insane privilege.
The next day Mia marches over to Elena’s house and asks if the house manager position is still on the table. Elena says yes and hires her on the spot, but finds something fishy about Mia’s acceptance of the offer. She calls the references that Mia has left for her when she signed the lease. The man on the phone has no record of knowing Mia. What secret is she hiding? We’re sure to find out over the course of the eight episode limited series. The one thing we know for sure, “Little Fires Everywhere” has certainly piqued our interest.
- Director Lynn Shelton does a nice job directing the pilot. If anything, the visual eye of the piece reminds me of “Weeds,” though Shaker Heights doesn’t feel as hilariously textured as Agrestic, California. Still, nice is hardly revolutionary, especially since the filmmaking bar on TV has been raised. It will be interesting to see whether the visual language becomes more complex as the show continues.
- We do not get nearly enough Rosemarie Dewitt as Linda McCullough, one of Elena’s closest allies in her book club. The two dish about “The Vagina Monologues,” calling it “Off-Broadway smut,” but do little else. As fourth billed in the series, I’m hopeful we’ll get more of her in the coming episodes.
- When Pearl and Moody are painting Pearl’s bedroom, Mia walks in and coos “Cerulean Blue.” This felt like a cultural reset. After “The Devil Wears Prada,” the word cerulean will never fail to perk up a gay man’s ear.
- The friction between Elena and Izzy is perhaps most hilariously portrayed in the salon. Elena wants Izzy’s burnt hair styled like Rachel Green (there is nothing more ‘90s than Jennifer Aniston on “Friends”). Yet, Izzy wants to emulate Drew Barrymore. “Drew Barrymore is fun — coke at thirteen, rehab at fourteen, flashing David Letterman at 20,” she says in defiance. When you put it that way, being Drew Barrymore sounds pretty rad.
- Joshua Jackson appears to only exist in scenes in the bedroom where he consoles Elena as she flies off the handle.
- Even though it’s shot to seem like a steamy HBO-like sex scene, Elena and Bill’s Saturday night scheduled-sex never brings the heat.
- There are many reasons to like Pearl, including Lexi Underwood’s performance. Chief among them has to be her educating the Richardson children on AIDS after they’re talking about Real World Boston compared to Real World San Francisco. Reality TV can be a powerful educating tool. Yes, even the Real World.
- We haven’t even talked about Mia’s nightmares where a man on the subway continually makes eyes at her. Later in the episode when the nightmare reappears, Mia imagines Elena in the man’s position at the train. Could this be connected to the mysterious reference that doesn’t know who she is? Is Mia really just a traveling artist, or is she running from something much greater?
Best Line Reading
If we’re going for shadiest line reading, Kerry Washington’s dressing down of Elena’s suggestion that she do portrait work wins, hands down. “The thing about portraits is you need to show people how they want to be seen, and I prefer to show people who they really are,” Mia tosses off as she packs up her car. The library is open, and Mia has read Elena for filth. Even Elena doesn’t quite know how to pivot.
Still, no one can make a line come alive quite like Reese Witherspoon. Every sentence further paints this hilariously detailed portrait of Elena and the world of Shaker Heights. My personal favorite would have to be her disdain for the choice of “The Vagina Monologues” at her book club. “Ever since she started at Planned Parenthood, everything has gotten so political,” Elena bemoans on the phone. This comes moments after revealing she “voted for Memoirs of a Geisha,” which in this context likely confirms she also voted for Bob Dole over Bill Clinton in 1996. Reese proves she doesn’t even need a scene partner to give us a full picture of her character.
Reese has been so ever-present, it’s easy to take her for granted. She is doing top-tier work here. However, the role of Mia Warren fits Kerry Washington like a glove. Her traveling artist loves her daughter too much to have her “fit in” to the suburban excess of Shaker Heights. While Washington gives us a strong characterization of Mia in this first episode, it still feels like we have more to learn about her. She hasn’t overplayed her hand. Instead, she has left us wanting more. I, for one, cannot wait to see what else Kerry Washington has in store.