Little Fires Everywhere is bound to spark comparisons to Big Little Lies, whether it wants them or not. The Hulu miniseries, an adaptation of Celeste Ng's 2017 novel of the same name, falls into a growing category of shows about privileged moms having extravagant fights with each other, and one of those moms is played by Reese Witherspoon in a collection of preppy cardigans. And that's usually enough. Little Fires Everywhere isn't as scorching as Big Little Lies, but it's worth warming up to anyway.
At its best, the eight-episode series (premiering March 18 on Hulu) is surprisingly incisive, and even at its most formulaic it's lit up with strong performances -- especially from Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who also executive produce. They star as mothers on a collision course: Elena Richardson (Witherspoon), a wealthy, rigidly Type-A mom of four, and Mia Warren (Washington), a restless artist on the run from her past. The women's families become dangerously intertwined after Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), move into Elena's rental home in the tony suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. But their tense coexistence implodes when Elena and Mia take opposite sides in a legal battle between a local couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults) trying to adopt a Chinese baby and the immigrant mother (Huang Lu) fighting to get her daughter back.
This should be visceral stuff, touching on cultural differences, immigration, class issues, and the horror of losing a child. But the show is too quick to look away from the characters in their most painful moments. (It literally cuts to the opening credits in the middle of a flashback that could have been devastating.) Little Fires Everywhere is a soapy drama that doesn't want to admit it's soapy; it heightens the drama too much in some scenes and softens the blow in others. It might even -- go with me here -- be a little too enamored with just how good Witherspoon and Washington are. A handful of scenes only seem to exist to give the lead actresses a chance to face off, which risks boiling an expansive story down to a two-woman feud.
Still, watching them work is a treat. Witherspoon gives a caustically funny performance that steers into Elena's worst traits without losing sight of her humanity, and Washington's Mia is the show's steely anchor. Mia's race isn't specified in the book, and casting Washington brings to the surface the microaggressions simmering in the original story. Little Fires Everywhere wants to tackle how race fundamentally shapes Mia and Elena's diverging experiences of the world, from their relationships with law enforcement to their approach to art and culture. Because the series can sometimes paint in broad strokes, early episodes are in danger of treating Mia and Pearl as representatives of the whole black experience. (To keep that from happening, the show leans hard on Brian [Stevonte Hart], the popular, Princeton-bound black boyfriend of Elena's eldest daughter, Lexie [Jade Pettyjohn].) But the Warrens are ultimately too vividly rendered to feel like representatives of anyone but themselves.
Little Fires is at its sharpest skewering supposedly well-meaning white liberals. Elena marched on Washington as a kid (the story is set in 1997, and between the Buffy references and Fiona Apple quotes, it won't let you forget it), and she believes her one brush with activism gives her a free pass for life. Her husband, Bill (Joshua Jackson at his sturdiest), is the kind of suit-wearing dad who justifies not helping others because he's putting his family first. Meanwhile, Lexie -- who, like her mother, loves arguing that Shaker Heights "doesn't see color" to get out of difficult conversations -- is so self-interested she resents not being allowed to intrude on her high school's minority achievement committee. In one of the show's smartest book-to-screen changes, Lexie's Yale application essay, a minor subplot in the novel, gets twisted into an explicit takedown of appropriation and white feminism.
The miniseries takes more liberties with the original story than I expected; the seven episodes released for review are different enough from the novel to keep the show unpredictable even for viewers who are familiar with the source material. As for the quality of the changes themselves, they run the gamut. The new narrative drains the story of some of its empathy, and the characters' motivation feels flat in a few key scenes, including a flashback to the defining decision of Mia's life. But the best changes are the ones that rise to the potential of the cast, expanding on the book's exploration of race and class tensions.
Little Fires Everywhere also finds new depths in its teenage characters. The young actors are impressive -- Lexi Underwood, in particular, is a powerhouse as Pearl -- and get this: They look their age. It's a lot easier to take teen drama seriously when the teens aren't all secretly put-together twenty-somethings. One of the most watchable kids in the story is Izzy (Megan Stott), the Richardsons' rebellious youngest daughter, whose sweet round face adds an interesting tension to her outsized anger at the world. The show builds on Izzy's story from the book, adding a new reason for her to feel out of step with her family -- and to be drawn to Mia, who becomes her artistic mentor. A stunning scene late in the series adds even more nuance to their relationship while still challenging Izzy to recognize her privilege.
If only the show could always be so comfortable with discomfort. In a flashback, a young Mia (played by Tiffany Boone) echoes her teacher's artistic mission: "Art should either bring something new into the world or something strange and familiar and terrifying, or at the very least uncomfortable. It should give us the uncanny." Little Fires Everywhere is rarely provocative. But not for nothing, it's better at engaging with race and class than Big Little Lies was.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Little Fires Everywhere premieres Wednesday, March 18 on Hulu.