Little Fires Everywhere is a well-produced drama that smoulders rather than burns

Reese Witherspoon gives another expert portrayal of an uptight fusspot in Prime Video‘s new series Little Fires Everywhere. It’s well made but feels more like prestige soap opera than prestige drama, says critic Luke Buckmaster. 

The highly dramatic opening moments of Little Fires Everywhere—involving a wailing siren, a burning building and a despondent Reese Witherspoon watching her home go up in flames—reminded me of an exchange from Edgar Wright’s 2004 comedy Shaun of the Dead. Distressed about the not-insignificant discovery of zombies, and their not-insignificant abilities to chew human flesh like bubblegum, in a neighbourhood that has, not insignificantly, become overrun with them, Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost) decide to call the police. And…

Shaun: “Shit, it’s engaged!”
Ed: “How about an ambulance?”
Shaun: “It’s engaged, Ed.”
Ed: “A fire engine?”
Shaun: “It’s one number, Ed, and it’s busy! Okay? What do you want a fire engine for anyway?”
Ed: “Anything with flashing lights, you know?”

Indeed. Anything with flashing lights. Invoking the emergency services is a never-fail way for film and TV directors to burst out of the gates, narratively speaking, as is depicting a fire burning wildly. As if to reiterate the point that fires are always intensely visually interesting, the intro credits scene of Little Fires Everywhere is full of them. There is a cassette tape on fire (the show is based in the 90s); clothes on fire; a shoe on fire; a teddy bear on fire; even a glass tumbler on fire. Hang on, glass tumblers are flammable?!

Outside the beautiful home, situated in a whitbread Ohio neighbourhood, Witherspoon’s character, Elena Richardson, is told that the fire department “found evidence of an accelerant. The guys said when they went in, there were little fires everywhere.” At that moment two thoughts occur simultaneously in the mind of the viewer. The first: “ooo, title drop!” The second a pondering of the obvious question: who is the arsonist?

The primary suspect is Izzy (Megan Stott), the youngest daughter of Elena and her defense attorney husband Bill (Joshua Fox). The black sheep of the family, Izzy’s rebellious period entails activities such as burning her hair, wearing short cut-off jeans and writing ‘NOT YOUR PUPPET’ in texta on her forehead. Mother responds to these manifestations of the proverbial middle finger imperfectly, firing off parental decrees such as “that’s not how the world works!”

Elena is a tightly wound fusspot who measures her daily alcohol intake by pouring white wine into a measuring glass, and approaches sex from a similarly managerial perspective. When she and Bill unexpectedly wind up in a passionate embrace in the bedroom, Elena abruptly shuts down this moment, announcing that it’s not Wednesday or Saturday—the two days of the week scheduled for lovemaking.

“It’s so much much more fun when we plan it!” Elena says, sounding like a grown-up version of Tracy Flick from Election (another nitpicking, goody-goody character expertly played by Witherspoon). Who wouldn’t want to rebel against a mother like that?

Which is not to say that Elena is unkind: much of the show actually pivots around an act of generosity towards Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a nomadic black artist, and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood), who are both new to town. Elena rents them the family’s spare home at a discounted rate and offers Mia a job as a “house manager” (read: maid). That generosity does not come from an entirely ‘pure’ place, however; Elena feels guilty for dobbing them into authorities for sleeping in their car.

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Class and racial divide is a key focus of Little Fires Everywhere, which runs for eight episodes, and was created by Liz Tigelaar and adapted by directors Lynn Shelton (who tragically passed away mid-May), Nzingha Stewart and Michael Weaver from the 2017 novel of the same name by Celeste Ng. When Mia and Pearl are first introduced, shown shopping for groceries and sleeping in their car, the music accompanying this scene is Spearhead’s funky, soulful There’s A Hole in My Bucket, a song about socio-economic status in general and the question of whether to give money to a panhandler in specific.

But that commentary isn’t heavy-handed. The drama primarily revolves around fleshing out the ways Mia and Pearl influence the Richardsons, and vice versa. Central to the story is the drawing of Elena and Mia’s slightly fractious relationship as well as the sweeter, softer one forged between Pearl and Elena’s son Moody (Gavin Lewis).

Little Fires Everywhere embraces the idea of motion pictures as a transparent medium: a ‘window to the world’ experience in which audiences lose themselves in the lives of the characters. The show’s well-produced aesthetics reflect that, looking classy but never flashy; the mission is to be seamless rather than striking. Uniformly strong and naturalistic performances reflect this also.

There is a sense the characters are being gently probed during periods in their lives that are different to their ordinary existence but not extraordinary. There’s also a sense the series is treading water, treating its very raison d’être as a gradual reveal, something to tease out. Is it for instance about peeling back the facade of white picket America and observing what prejudices and inhibitions lie behind it? Is it about different variations of motherhood?

There is a nebulousness to the drama that, two episodes in (these episodes form the extent of this review) still hasn’t solidified into something consistently intriguing. Going about its motions and locked into the daily grind of its characters, the show feels more like prestige soap opera than prestige drama. And the clearly symbolic title, by the way, is a lie; there are certainly not little fires everywhere. More like little smoulderings of dramatic intrigue; lots of fuses without sparks. It could have done with more emergency services, metaphorically and perhaps even literally speaking. Anything with flashing lights, you know?