In the not-so-cold open of Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime), Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) watches her lovely big house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, burn to the ground. Who could have done such a thing to a family as blameless as the Richardsons?
The next eight hours of this “mini” series, an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel, are devoted to finding out. It’s the 1990s, as we can tell from The Real World being on TV and Elena’s car phone. The Richardsons don’t seem to have many worries. Elena is married to Bill (Joshua Jackson), a suspiciously reasonable lawyer. She has relegated her career as a journalist in favour of being a good mother to her four teenage children, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Izzy (Megan Stott).
Shaker Heights is one of those perfect-looking American towns of which film and TV have taught us to be deeply suspicious. It’s as if every white fence were required to have a murder or paedophile or at least a slightly creepy old guy lurking behind it.
On the way to work one morning, Elena spots a car in which a mother and daughter are sleeping. Never passing up a chance to be a Good Citizen, she calls the cops on them. Later, the same couple turn up as prospective tenants for a spare property Elena and Bill are looking to rent out. They turn out to be Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). Mia is an artist, who changes town every few months.
Out of guilt at dobbing this charming but mysterious couple in, Elena offers them the house at a cheap price. Moody and Pearl quickly strike up a friendship. The two families are bound together, with consequences that will teach both mothers the limits of good intentions. Izzy is starting to develop goth tendencies, burning her hair off and refusing to join in at her summer music camp, while Pearl has had enough of being hauled from pillar to post.
It’s written and directed with a sure touch. From the vantage point of 2020, the Nineties seem like a long time ago in American race and cultural relations, although that might partly be about our contemporary sensitivities. As the title suggests, the anger in Little Fires Everywhere is still mainly seething below the surface, rather than spilling into open war.
Although there are side-plots, the drama is driven by the two matriarchs. They circle each other warily, and we wait for the moment when they will put aside suburban politesse and say what they really think of each other. Despite their differences in class, race, wealth and marital statuses, the two women are really divided by what they have in common: pride, maternal love and a conviction that believing something to be right will make it so.
The leads are well cast, although Washington’s is the better part. Her Mia is spiky but industrious and willing to change her mind. Few actresses do priggish better than Witherspoon, and she gives Elena plenty of Stepford hauteur, but the role is underwritten and Elena is too obnoxious to be sympathetic. Even in Nineties small-town Ohio, nobody could be so insensitive to race and class. Certainly no local newspaper reporter could be so oblivious to poverty. By the end of the first episode, the question is not so much who has burnt down Elena’s house, but why nobody had done it sooner.
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