You’d be hard pressed to find better examples of “on the nose” casting than having Kerry Washington play a proud, sensual but stand-offish artist and Reese Witherspoon an obnoxiously over-organized control-freak queen of an affluent “planned community.”
Add “single mom” and “controlling mom” to those character descriptions and you might think you’ve seen “Little Fires Everywhere” before, maybe with these two in similar roles. The fact that each is talented enough for them to have flipped characters in the casting doesn’t shake that.
But “Little Fires,” based on Celeste Ng’s novel, uses their acting baggage, that familiarity in the casting, to trip us up, surprise and sometimes touch us. Over the eight episodes of the series, the characters and their very sympathetic performances of them build expectations that the next episode, next frosty or understanding encounter, upends.
The upper hand shifts back and forth. The women they play show white liberal guilt and African American anger at “profiling,” but also underhandedness, pettiness, intolerance and inattention. And then we’re bowled over by the little kindnesses they’re capable of, seemingly wholly out of character, the things each — as an artist and a locally-connected journalist — sees that others around them might not.
Washington plays a single mom/artist who drags her bright and pretty teen daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) to yet another new town in her battered early ’80s Chevette. Sure, they spend their first night in that car in tony “planned” Shaker Heights, Ohio. But this is a place Mia (Washington) has picked out for studying and making art about. The kid just smiles and rolls with it.
Model-citizen Elena (Witherspoon) is the sort of woman this HOA (home owner’s association) Hell was made for, where the houses are McMansions, the grass height is uniform and mandated and the schools filled with bright, rich Ivy League-bound over-achievers.
It’s 1997 and Elena lives her on a rigid schedule, insisting that her prosperous family of six adhere to the vast calendar covering the fridge. “Four ounces of wine” is all she ever allows herself. Sex (Joshua Jackson plays her husband)?
“It’s not Wednesday or Saturday!”
She writes part-time for the local newspaper, has a book club (Rosemarie DeWitt is a pal), knows and charms everybody. She’s all about “doing kind things for kind people who appreciate the kindness.”
The sheen of perfection hangs over Shaker Heights, from Elena’s absurd over-dressing for work, the perfectly-manicured yards and every beautiful child we meet. This has a gloss that’s more “Desperate Housewives” than Witherspoon’s similarly affluent but grittier “Big Little Lies.”
Ah, but we’ve seen the first “fire” in the opening image of the series, a “big” fire that burns down Elena’s huge house. “Little fires everywhere” are how it was set, and that’s what the two women notice over the course of the series — all these “little fires” — hurting people, situations that need tending, nurturing of smothering.
Elena’s problem child is Izzy (Megan Stott), a rebellious 14 year-old whose name comes up at that first fire. She’s acting out, alienated from her “wear this/study that” mother, teased by her three siblings and bullied at school.
Mia’s Pearl? She just wants stability, a home, a room she can paint more than one wall in because “sample size” cans only cover one wall. In Elena’s brood she sees nuclear family normality.
That’s a clever if obvious dynamic to play with up — Mia’s “We artists gotta stick together” connection with Izzy, Elena’s “I like to hug” bond with Pearl.
The series treats us to other “fires” going on in this idyllic, monied community, the “secrets” each woman keeps and a lovely back and forth, see-sawing between the two leads “having a moment” juxtaposed with many scenes where they’re rubbing each other the wrong way.
Brief flashbacks allow us to pass judgement on who someone is, only for another scene to come up undercutting that judgement.
The ’90s nostalgia for Beck and “The Real World” may connect with some.
Suspense shows up in the “secrets” that are inevitable in stories this soap operatic. Because that’s what this is, mysteries, conflicts and relationships teased out over eight hours — no cliffhangers — building back towards that opening blaze.
And “on the nose” or not, even if the parts don’t much in the way of “She’s really stretching here,” there’s something to be said in very good actresses taking a pitch, right in their wheelhouse, and belting it.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sexual situations, alcohol and marijuana use, profanity
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Joshua Jackson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Megan Stott, Lexi Underwood
Credits: Created by Liz Tigelaar, based on the book by Celeste Ng. A Hulu original.
Running time: Eight episodes, @1 hour each