In pursuit of dropping jaws with plot twists and inspiring social media memes, so many shows ironically lose sight of what makes big moments matter. In turn, they quickly forfeit their resonance with viewers. Every exaggerated character introduction, inorganic plot development or unrealistic (yet ever-so-sassy) piece of dialogue serves to cheapen what is happening on screen.
The best shows avoid this trap. They commit to sincere characterization, meaningful storyline development and honest emotion. They create believable worlds in which viewers can understand, care about, fall in love with and feel betrayed by the very real humans they are seeing on screen. They, more than “stunt” shows, make an impact.
Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” falls into the latter category. It is a show that builds – worlds, characters, stories, and relationships – in a methodical and meaningful way. As a result, each passing episode further grabs viewers’ attention and emotional investment. Everything matters, precisely because “Little Fires Everywhere” doesn’t abandon its vision in a desperate hope to make something stick.
It helps, of course, that “Little Fires Everywhere” has its roots in excellent source material. Celeste Ng’s eponymous 2017 novel takes an admirably human approach to characters, portraying individuals who can oscillate between generous and well-intentioned and selfish and vindictive. There are definitely <i>better</i> characters than others, but “Little Fires Everywhere” avoids the Hollywood fantasy of binary “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Under the guidance of Ng herself, as well as executive producer Liz Tigelaar and other fantastic producers, writers and directors, the brilliant cast brings these decidedly human characters to life. As Elena Richardson, Reese Witherspoon may superficially play to similar notes as her “Big Little Lies” character Madeline, but her turn comes with even more emotional nuance, palpable vulnerability and believable (and often misguided) passion. Kerry Washington offers an incredibly compelling, Emmy-worthy performance as Mia Warren, seamlessly merging senses of pride, fear, heartbreak, self-assurance and vulnerability into a mesmerizing character.
The power of the cast is not, however, limited to the headlining superstars. Lexi Underwood, who plays Pearl Warren, delivers one of the most refreshingly honest performances one will find in dramatic television. Whether through minor facial shifts or big displays of emotion, the potential breakout star captures and communicates every complexity of her character.
Far from the cliche “rebel child,” Megan Stott’s Izzy Richardson digs into the very real heartbreak — not merely the “cool” factor — of being an outsider. Jade Pettyjohn introduces Lexie Richardson with the unmistakable swagger of an All-American “It Girl” before delivering gripping emotion as she learns hard truths about the world and her advantages within it (per confrontations with boyfriend Brian, played by the also-excellent Stevonte Hart). Jordan Elsass (Trip Richardson) and Gavin Lewis (Moody Richardson) may not receive storylines as “heavy” as the other younger characters, but they create believable characters with wholly resonant emotions. Not merely effective in making their characters pop, their compelling performances add weight to interactions with other characters.
The superb acting runs across the board; Joshua Jackson delivers a pitch-perfect take on the jaded suburban husband in Bill Richardson. As the storyline unfolds, we see that his alignment with some of the Shaker community’s worst tendencies is out of defeat and complacency rather than passion. When something tugs on his heart strings or inspires more complete thought, he shows more admirable beliefs and human qualities. Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults do not receive quite as much screen time as Linda and Mark McCullough, but they factor into a major storyline – and hit powerful emotional beats in the process. The same goes for Huang Lu as Bebe Chow.
Early episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere” feature sporadic flashbacks, and the sixth episode centers entirely on Elena and Mia in earlier times. AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone are remarkable in these respective roles. They (particularly Boone) do a marvelous job of recreating Witherspoon and Washington’s speaking styles and mannerisms, but their performances are not merely impressions. They are complete embodiments, as they flawlessly capture the human spirit behind the established lead characters. Thanks to the impeccable performances, the flashback episode serves as a meaningful window Elena and Mia rather than a “fun” way to explain key elements of the backstory.
With a cast that injects an undeniable sense of humanity into these characters, the show is able to properly tell its stories. It does not have to create artificial interest through aggressively shocking twists or accelerated developments. It can allow their stories to unfold naturally, because even when the “event” is not major (such as a fleeting glance between Pearl and one of the Richardson kids), the heart and humanity behind the moment gives it meaning.
None of this is to say “Little Fires Everywhere” is slow-moving and restrained or that none of the “twists” will catch viewers by surprise.
The premiere, for example, may not be the most action-packed hour in television history, but it is rich with big events and plot developments. It opens with a flash-forward to the Richardsons’ house burning down, and it features several powerful scenes and conflict developments. “Little Fires Everywhere” never feels slow or low-key.
It is, however, to say that the show makes the right choices regarding its development. It introduces events and characters not with the goal of immediately shocking viewers but with the aim of engaging them. Thanks to that engagement, future moments in later episodes mean that much more.
Frank conversations between characters like Mia and Izzy and Lexie and her boyfriend Brian mean something special because we understand the sincere mindsets behind them. Inherently emotional, interactions between mothers and their children — notably Mia and Pearl and Elena and Izzy — become increasingly complex and meaningful as we learn more about their relationships. Although not always forgivable, late-season acts of betrayal and vengeance feel believable and not like the work of a cartoonish villain.
Episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere” do not all end with especially mind-blowing, pressure-building “cliffhangers,” but they always leave you wanting more. Because the show leaves no doubt that everything you’ve learned previously is going to impact what happens next. And what happens next will give new meaning to everything that came before.
Few shows possess that quality. “Little Fires Everywhere” does, and it needs to be a must-watch this week.
Initially set to arrive on March 18, the first three episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere” launched Tuesday on Hulu.