The miniseries ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is set in the 1990s, which its script and soundtrack take great pains to remind you of Sugar Ray and Grey Poupon, ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Before Sunrise’. There’s even a reasonable on-screen facsimile of the lobby of The New York Times circa 1997.
Watching it, though, you’ll most likely be reminded of a more recent vocabulary. You can almost sense the characters catching themselves just before they refer to one another’s appropriations, microaggressions and code switching. Rarely has a period piece felt this assiduously up-to-date in its racial and gender politics.
Based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling 2017 novel, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ originated with Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine. And like another Hello Sunshine project, HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies,’ it adapts a literary page-turner by a female author into a starring vehicle for Witherspoon.
More pertinently, it also resembles ‘Big Little Lies’ in the way it evokes the tradition of the Hollywood — you’ll excuse the term — “women’s picture,” movies mostly made by men (Douglas Sirk, George Cukor, William Wyler) that accommodated female stars and domestic situations by wrapping them in sometimes high-pitched melodrama.
And while ‘Little Fires,’ developed by Liz Tigelaar (‘Brothers and Sisters,’ ‘Casual’), is staged and edited at a calm, even deliberate, pace, with a variety of melancholy cover versions of peppier ‘90s songs, there’s no way to get around the melodramatic core of the material. (Seven episodes were available for review.)
Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, mother of four and lawyer’s wife in the ur-suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. She also works part time at the local newspaper — her dreams of a big-city career were scuttled by motherhood — and manages a family rental property, which is how she meets Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), an art photographer, and Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood).
Mia and Pearl are constantly on the move, migrating in their beat-up car from city to city, a lifestyle that Mia attributes to her art practice and that the even-tempered, precociously intelligent Pearl grimly tolerates. When they rent Elena’s apartment, a spark is struck — something in Mia and Pearl’s uncompromising Bohemianism resonates with Elena’s submerged desire for a different life — and the do-gooder Elena impulsively offers Mia a job as “house manager” for her family, which really means cooking and cleaning.
It’s just the first thing in ‘Little Fires’ that, while it might happen (it probably felt natural in the book), makes you squint at the screen and think, Really? The fiercely proud and cosmopolitan Mia resists, but when Pearl befriends the Richardson children — and is entranced by their comfortable, stable Shaker Heights life — Mia changes her mind, taking the job so she can keep an eye on her daughter.
It’s an unlikely set-up — Mia doesn’t seem like someone who’s going to walk into the kitchen and whip up a tasty meatloaf from the ingredients on hand. And the improbabilities compound themselves in a subplot that becomes the main action of the story, involving a Chinese waitress (Huang Lu), in the country illegally, who lives at the restaurant where Mia works nights and who’s looking for the baby she left outside a firehouse while afflicted with post-partum depression.
The real dramatic downfall, though, is how the deck is stacked against Elena, and therefore Witherspoon, even though it’s her project. The depiction of Elena as a clueless and rigid white suburbanite — shocked when her book club reads ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ maintaining a mammoth colour-coded family calendar, nattering on sanctimoniously and never missing a chance to make a tone-deaf remark — gets almost cartoonish.
It’s as if Witherspoon were being asked to do one of her comic roles from ‘Election’ or ‘Legally Blonde’ but with all the humour drained out, and much of her performance feels correspondingly stiff and unnatural, though she has some good scenes in later episodes when Elena becomes obsessed with uncovering Mia’s secrets.
That conception of Elena fits a pattern, an approach ‘Little Fires’ shares with an awful lot of current series: Rather than presenting characters in the round and then developing them, it presents characters as terms in a moral and cultural equation and then slowly reveals their pasts. For the viewer, the surprises are in the revelations and not in the choices the characters make, and rather than seeing the characters grow and change, we just see them being moved around the game board.
The women’s pictures of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s often did something similar, but they compensated with an intensity and style that translated into real emotion. ‘Little Fires’ needed its Douglas Sirk.
Don’t miss it!
‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is streaming in the UAE on OSN from May 24.