When it comes to female-forward TV, Reese Witherspoon has gone all in. Her latest ripped-from-the-book-club melodrama rocks the eight-episode drama is “Little Fires Everywhere,” which drops on Hulu on March 18. Based on Celeste Ng’s 2019 incendiary bestseller, the ensemble story typecasts Witherspoon as Elena Richardson, the perfectionist suburban mother of four privileged teens.
When artsy single mom Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) arrive in upscale Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a beat-up car, there’s bound to be a crash between two women of the feel-good-do-it generation transformed by the responsibilities of motherhood – and the weight of the secrets they carry.
Come for the discussions of the challenges of modern motherhood, the corrosive nature of perfectionism and the endless muddle of teenage relationships. Stay for the face-off fireworks between Witherspoon and Washington that recall the catfights between “Dynasty’s” Joan Collins and Diahann Carroll. Here are seven reasons you won’t be able to look away.
1. Kerry Washington kills it: The four-time Emmy nominee is ready for her win. What I love about her portrayal of Mia is that, in contrast to her leading role in “Scandal,” she gets to play the loose, bra-averse, pot-smoking cool mom – not the buttoned-up alpha fashionista professional. She’s just so good – and her superpower is her ability to call people on their crap, giving way to endless confrontations. But, sooner or later, she has to call herself on her B.S. and she totally goes deep. Sure she’s hip – but she’s also a mother, which means in her teen-aged daughter’s eyes she’ll never really be totally cool. This performance is total Emmy bait – and so satisfying.
2. A star is born in Lexi Underwood: As Mia’s daughter Pearl, Underwood delivers the illusion of a teenager who has her stuff together despite the fact that she’s suffering from her mother’s peripatetic lifestyle. When she meets the privileged Richardsons, she can’t help but be drawn in – and becomes a pawn in the inevitable duel between the two mothers. With her luminous eyes, petite frame and expressive facial expressions, the 16-year-old sucks the camera like hard candy – and stands out in a very large ensemble of talented teens.
3. Lynn Shelton knows the ways of females: Actress-director Shelton is the very model of a cult indie director who crossed over to greater success on the small screen when opportunities opened up for women directors. She is behind the camera for three of the episodes. I interviewed the Seattle-based filmmaker in 2012 when she had a string of tight-budget, small-scale, character-driven indie hits like “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” which starred Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt, who appears in “Little Fires Everywhere.” Shelton told me: “I’m not into big sci-fi epic with moving parts from the ’50s. I do pieces that are microcosmic, looks at interpersonal relationships between human beings.” Although she has scaled up to larger ensembles, her storytelling remains human-scaled and digs deep into relationships.
4. Mother-daughter trouble dramatized: At the book’s center is the mystery of mother-daughter relationships – whether a mom has two daughters or one, gives away her baby girl in a moment’s desperation or aborts a fetus. The show captures something that the mother in me completely relates to: the seesaw of emotions that can be described as “I love her to death/she’s the biggest pain in the ass.” And “Little Fires Everywhere” dramatizes that this dynamic is a two-way street – I can identify as a mother, but it’s also clear that the daughters feel the same way.
5. We’ve got issues: The series dives into a wide array of women’s magazine hot topics: adoption rights; racism; class struggles; lesbianism; abortion; post-partum depression; miscarriage; infidelity; financial hardship; the dark side of perfectionism; breastfeeding; the working mother’s endless struggle to balance work life, kids and their husband’s career; and the deep connection between mother and child (whether biological or adopted) that knows no bounds and obeys no laws.
6. The Reese Factor: Book-club tastemaker and maternal force of nature Witherspoon is the beating heart of this miniseries. As executive producer, she optioned the novel in the same genre as her hit “Big Little Lies.” As Elena, with some dips into backstory, we see how her choices to appease her own mother, shaped and hardened the woman she became. We’ve seen Reese play the uptight alpha do-gooder before but here we see the post-it obsessed, color-coded lunch sack uber mom and nosy neighbor she has become. And it isn’t pretty.
7. The Better Homes and Gardens factor: While the design porn of this Ohio-set series has nothing on the ocean-front palazzos of “Big Little Lies,” we see similar overcompensating homemaking and home décor porn. My wedding wasn’t nearly as ornate and overcompensating as the first birthday party Elena throws for her best friend’s adopted Asian toddler. (An event the child will neither appreciate nor remember.) And when it comes time for the holidays, Elena’s brick Tudor gets the brightest house on the block treatment with lights and decorations galore – all bought, paid for and subcontracted.
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