The new Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere has now come to a close with its last episode airing on Wednesday, April 22nd. With its star-studded cast that includes household names like Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon and drama-filled episodes, it is easily perfect weekend binge material. Behind its initial appeal though, lies a much more complex and enriching storyline. A plot that brings family, racial, and class tensions to the forefront with an intimate look into the lives of two families. But, like all shows that attempt to confront such complex topics, it does some things well and others not so much.
Little Fires Everywhere is based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Celeste Ng. It followed the lives of an African American mother named Mia and her daughter Pearl who move to the wealthy white suburb of Shaker Heights Ohio. There, their paths cross with the wealthy Elena Richardson who decides to rent her house to the pair. Soon Mia and Pearl’s lives become intertwined with that of Elena, her four children, and her husband. Conflict soon emerges as Mia feels Pearl is beginning to slip away from her and into the all too comfortable lives of the Richardsons. The free-spirited photographer Mia begins to clash with the highly organized and routine obsessed Elena.
While watching the show it is easy to pick up on the racial and class tensions at play. The most tensions though seem to come directly from Mia and Elena themselves. Elena feels she is doing the morally responsible thing to share her house with the “less fortunate” and welcome them into their home. But Elena undercuts her initially warm welcome with sharp reminders that she has the upper-hand. For example, Elena thinking Mia needs money, offers Mia a job as a maid out of a sense of obligation.
Well-meaningness in disguise also crops up in other ways outside of Mia and Elena’s relationship. When Elena’s daughter Lexi talks to Pearl about her plans to go to college Lexi bemoans something along the lines of “with good grades, you could get into any school because they want more black people”.
Little Fires Everywhere does a very good job of exposing power dynamics and privilege, almost too good a job. The dialogue in its controversial scenes, while meant to reflect subtle real-life interactions, is a sharp contrast from the rather bland dialogue that peppers the rest of the show. While it is not entirely fair to hold a show to the same standards as its book counterpart, a comparison here seems needed. Little Fires Everywhere’s source material was much more realistic when portraying issues of race and class and the subtle ways they creep into daily interactions. The show ends up putting these interactions into watchers’ faces and makes it appear as if it is using controversy to escape a sub-par plot.
At its core, Little Fires Everywhere is about relationships between people and complex family dynamics. It ends up disappointing in this regard though. The set up is too black and white, with Mia being portrayed as a wronged and unfairly judged mother and Elena as a privileged villain. In the original novel has grey areas that explore each woman’s struggles with motherhood, social expectations, and family. The interactions between Mia and Elena were far less dramatic. The show dispenses with nuance by automatically portraying Mia as the woman who is always in the right. While Elena eventually gets a backstory, it feels incredibly contrived and un-genuine, like it is again trying to make a bold statement about class and motherhood and falls flat of an actual personal story.
Little Fires Everywhere is certainly not the worst TV adaptation of a book ever made, and certainly not the first one to favor drama and controversy over a rich plot. It is a nice weekend watch with a good cast, set, and mildly interesting plot. But, it is no substitute for the book.
Featured Image from Hulu