First look UK TV review: Little Fires Everywhere
Helen Archer | On 21, May 2020
Expectations are high for this adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere. Not only starring some big-hitters (Kerry Washington, Reece Witherspoon), it also comes hot on the heels of Witherspoon’s other book-to-TV success, Big Little Lies. Add in themes of race, class privilege and motherhood, the eight-part series undeniably possesses some highly combustible materials.
Set in 1997 in Shaker Heights, Ohio – an extremely regulated town that nonetheless prides itself on its liberal values and “acceptance” – the narrative pits the wealthy Richardson family against newcomers to the neighbourhood, Mia Warren (Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood). Opening with the Richardsons watching as their house burns down, it sets up a whodunnit from the start, before rewinding to four months previously to examine the events that led to the suspected arson.
Witherspoon here plays another version of her Big Little Lies character, but with much broader brushstrokes and less humour. She is the matriarch Elena Richardson, wife of lawyer husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) and mother to four teenagers Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Izzy (Megan Stott). Working at a local newspaper is perfect for her busybody nature, and cements her status in the community. Our introduction to Elena sets the tone for the series – on her way to work, she notices Mia and Pearl sleeping in a car. Her immediate reaction is to phone the police. Asked to describe the inhabitants of the vehicle, she replies “African American, I think”. She is the embodiment of the “Karen” meme.
In the novel, Mia and Pearl’s race was never specified – Ng has spoken about the fact that she pictured them as “people of colour”, but says she felt as though she wasn’t the right person to write about a black woman’s experience, and described them ambiguously. She examines race more overtly in the overarching plot line, as one of Elena’s friends, Linda McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt), attempts to adopt the daughter of Mia’s Chinese co-worker. Yet the specification of Mia and Pearl as black here makes the proceedings crackle with tension. Through Pearl’s friendship with Elena’s son, Moody, the two women become increasingly immersed in each other’s lives. But when Mia becomes Elena’s “house manager”, the power imbalance becomes ever-more apparent.
That these are two very different women is demonstrated in all aspects of their lives, from their parenting style to their attitudes to sex. Mia and Pearl have an intense relationship, made more so by their itinerant lifestyle – every few months, they get in their car and just move on. As a mother, Elena is less overtly emotional and much more regimented. Mia is a free-spirited artist, something Elena feels is exotic and interesting, although she feels Mia is in need of patronage. Her suggestion that Mia stakes up wedding and family photos is swiftly knocked back: “The thing about portraits is you need to show people how they want to be seen. I prefer to show people as they really are,” says Mia. It’s almost too on-the-nose. For Elena, appearances are everything. This is a woman who takes a note of her weight every morning, and measures out her glasses of wine to the millimetre. She has a strict schedule for her twice weekly sex with her husband – “it’s so much more fun when we plan it,” she tells him. Mia, meanwhile, has sex with who she wants, when she wants.
The problem is, while Mia and Elena’s uneasy relationship makes for some great moments, it is at the expense of the rest of the characters, and overshadows the goings-on of the younger cast members, who are experiencing their own personal and political awakenings. And despite fertile ground for some thoughtful discussion about race and power and unthinking privilege, some of the dialogue is simply melodramatic and verging on cheesy. By the end of Episode 3, the adoption plot is just starting to kick in, but many of the characters still appear as cyphers rather than fully-drawn individuals. Much work is yet to be done to avoid buckling under the weight of both expectation and the original material.
Little Fires Everywhere is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.