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27 May 2020

Little Fires Everywhere – boring, improbable and hackneyed

I know you’re desperate for a new box-set – but, boy, is this dull.

By Rachel Cooke

In Little Fires Everywhere, adapted from the bestselling novel by Celeste Ng and now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Reese Witherspoon’s Elena Richardson bears a strikingly powerful resemblance to Madeline Mackenzie, her character in Big Little Lies. Yes, here is yet another interfering goody two shoes who lives or dies by her improbably huge, colour-coded calendar (seriously, it’s the same size as the Mappa Mundi, and about twice as complicated). Elena’s much-vaunted kindness – another thing she has in common with Madeline – usually misfires for the simple reason that it is not innate, but an accomplishment that must be carefully performed, like genteel manners or good deportment. It’s also strictly rationed, finding its perfect metaphor in the “four ounces” of wine to which she limits herself once evening has fallen. When it comes to kindness, what Elena gives with one hand, she’ll soon take back with the other.

A reporter on a local newspaper, she lives in a plush arts-and-crafts-style house in a swanky bit of Cleveland, Ohio. She has four teenage children, three of whom are perfect, and one of whom, Izzy (Megan Stott), is the kind of kid who signals her rebellion by writing in magic marker on her forehead. But never mind. In spite of her desperate need to control their children, Elena’s husband, Bill (Joshua Jackson), adores her – something I find slightly mystifying given not only the pugnacious set of her jaw, but the fact that she will permit sex only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. (“It’s Thursday already!” she says, pointing at a clock that reads two minutes past midnight.) Then again, Bill is kind of… docile. Come the weekend, when she emerges from their en suite in a black nightgown, he looks like a dormouse that’s about to devour a particularly delicious hazelnut. That the negligee skims her ankles and makes her look vaguely like she’s in an old Scottish Widows ad seems only to add to his suburban ardour.

What this creaking set-up needs, of course, is an outsider – a stirrer with beady eyes and shockingly different values – to shake life up out there on the kitchen islands and manicured lawns. And here she comes, in the form of Mia (Kerry Washington), a black single mother to whom Elena rents out an apartment she owns. Mia is an artist, which means, in this realm of wild cliché, that she’s not interested in having a nice home, nor even in making supper for her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). She’s rude and bohemian, and does strange things with old newspapers and bicycles (“mixed media,” she tells Elena, taking the piss). You’d think, wouldn’t you, that Elena would give her a wide berth? But, no. Mia is soon working part-time as her housekeeper, a job that seems to fit neither with her anti-bourgeois values nor her high-waisted jeans (it’s 1997, and denims of the kind favoured by Mia cannot yet be bought in J Crew).

Oh dear. I know you’re desperate for a new box-set, and I know, too, that Little Fires Everywhere is well-intentioned (co-produced by Witherspoon’s TV company, it’s written and sometimes directed by women). And yes, it looks expensive enough, if you’re in the market for bland Pottery Barn interiors and blazers with gold buttons. But, boy, is it boring, a tedium that is the result both of the hackneyed way that character is signalled, and its improbable plot. How hard it is to care about those whose motivations do not ally, even for a minute, with all that we know of what makes them tick.

What, I wonder, is Mia up to? Finding out is the only possible reason to stick with this show (I haven’t read the book, and I’m only halfway through the eight episodes). Is she a goody or a baddy? All I can say for certain is that she puts Ritz crackers in her meat loaf, something Elena disdains as being unrefined but which Bill, suddenly perking up, seems to rather like. Are the Ritz crackers another metaphor? Where Elena’s four ounces of Sauvignon speak of all that’s most clenched about her, do these crumbs announce wanton destruction? I don’t know. But if I do return to Little Fires Everywhere, I will be sure to keep a careful eye on the Richardson family’s biscuit barrel. 

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This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak