Perhaps as it should, Little Fires Everywhere does indeed start with a fire. “There are little fires everywhere”, a fire marshal relays to a distraught Reese Witherspoon and a concerned Joshua Jackson, as they stare at their sprawling suburban home engulfed in flames. The marshal’s statement indicates this was intentionally lit, setting up an immediate sense of intrigue that this drama hopes to successfully utilise over its 8-episode arc.
Based on Celeste Ng‘s 2017 bestselling novel, Little Fires Everywhere sets its melodrama in the opulent suburbia of Shaker, Ohio, circa 1997; the setting allowing mileage out of decade-central gags, including in-car phones and Jennifer Aniston’s “Rachel cut” from Friends. Trailing back 4 months earlier from the show’s opening blaze, people-pleaser Elena Richardson (Witherspoon, initially appearing in a manner not entirely removed from the persona she created on Big Little Lies) is doting out her usual brand of super-motherdom. Four children to wrangle – her youngest, Izzy (Megan Stott), proving the most troublesome – and a set of household rules she operates her day by (Jackson as her husband is only afforded marital relations on a Wednesday and Saturday), episode screenwriter Liz Tigelaar (TV’s Nashville) balances Elena’s seeming tone-deaf strive for perfection with an honest rationality that makes it altogether-difficult to completely dismiss her.
As much as Izzy is the likeliest culprit for the Richardson home fire – the first episode very much paints her as the black sheep of the family (almost painfully so) – the introduction of Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a struggling artist and single mother (Lexi Underwood as her daughter Pearl provides a real sense of warmth throughout), suggests Izzy may not be Elena’s only enemy. When we first meet Mia and Pearl they’re sleeping in their car in an abandoned parking lot of sorts. Elena, believing she’s doing the right neighbourhood-approved action, calls the police on them, but when she officially meets the duo a sense of her own white guilt gets the best of her and she ends up renting them a house for next-to-nothing.
To call Elena’s familiarity with Mia uncomfortable would be putting it lightly – and it certainly doesn’t help when she proposes Mia work for her (“House manager” is the term she uses to smooth over racist suggestions) – and it’s in those little moments that the show’s commentary on race and class fuel the fire underneath a series built on intrigue relating to Mia’s seemingly haunted past; brief flashes of a stoic Jesse Williams suggest her pre-Shaker days were an existence built on terror. In addition to Elena and Mia’s building discord, the dynamic of Pearl wanting to spend more and more time with the Richardsons brings into question Mia’s own relationship with her, furthering tension that understandably will be brought to a boil.
As melodramatic and, at times, coincidental Little Fires Everywhere proves to be – and it occasionally falls victim to replaying arguments and and conflicts through too – it’s difficult to turn away from due to just how incredibly nuanced the performances of Witherspoon and Washington are. Though it’s easy to liken Witherspoon’s character here to that of Madeline Mackenzie from Big Little Lies, there’s a layer of depth and heart that allows her to avoid a re-creation, and Washington’s knack for switching emotion in the simplest of flashes is masterful to watch as one moment she’s almost terrifyingly standing her ground before she crumbles in emotion the next.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Little Fires Everywhere is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.