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Highly Watchable, Yet Lacking Spark: 'Little Fires Everywhere' Fails To Ignite

Hulu's new eight-part series uses the fraught encounter between two families — one well-off and white, one bohemian and black — to raise tricky questions about race and social class.

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Other segments from the episode on March 17, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 17, 2020: Interview with Hank Azaria; Review of TV show 'Little Fires Everywhere.'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 2017 novel "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng tells the story of the relationship between a black family and a white family in '90s suburbia. The book has been adapted into a new Hulu series that premieres tomorrow. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that it's carried by its stars, Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: American television spent decades tiptoeing around race, a topic that made advertisers nervous. I can't say exactly when this changed - maybe somewhere between Obama's reelection and the early Trump presidency. But these days, we're seeing an explosion of shows on the subject, including "Black-ish," "Watchmen," "Atlanta," "Shots Fired" and "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson." Now comes "Little Fires Everywhere," a new eight-part Hulu series adapted from the 2017 bestseller by Celeste Ng. Set during the late '90s in prosperous Shaker Heights, Ohio, this drama uses the fraught encounter between two families - one well-off and white, one Bohemian and black - to raise tricky questions about race, social class and how much we can shape life to our ends.

The story begins with Type A mother Elena Richardson - that's Reese Witherspoon - watching her family's large home burn down and hearing everyone say that her disaffected daughter Izzy set the fire. To see why this happened, we flash back several months. That's when Elena rents out her family-owned apartment to Mia Warren, a nomadic single mom artist played by Kerry Washington, and her teenage daughter Pearl. That's Lexi Underwood. Bursting with noblesse oblige, Elena is proud to be helping Mia and Pearl make a home in Shaker Heights, a liberal bastion of good schools and seeming racial equality. She wants Mia and Pearl to have a good life like the one she shares with her lawyer husband, played by a genial Joshua Jackson, and their four teenage kids. But life isn't so neat. Even as Pearl begins spending time at the Richardson house, drawn by its unfamiliar air of stability, the rebellious Izzy gravitates to the spiky Mia, whose art strives to show people as they really are, not as they want to be seen.

The wary Mia neither likes nor trusts Elena, whom she finds complacent. She's unhappy that Pearl is being pulled into the Richardson family orbit, believing they're both spoiling and using her daughter. To keep an eye on this, she accepts Elena's cringeworthy offer to do domestic work around their house. Naturally, their relationship is strained, as you can hear when Elena bursts in on Mia unannounced with a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE")

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Mia Warren) Is something burning?

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Elena Richardson) Oh, sorry. I knocked.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia Warren) Can I help you?

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena Richardson) Yes. I forgot to give you the keys to the house and money for the groceries, OK? OK. I - the place looks great. Actually, the reason that I came by was because I called the person that you listed as your previous landlord, and strangely, he didn't seem to know you.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia Warren) Well, the numbers must've gotten mixed up.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena Richardson) Well, I would really appreciate if you could get me the un-mixed-up (ph) numbers.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia Warren) Yeah. No problem.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena Richardson) Wonderful. Well, I'll let you get back to work.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia Warren) OK.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena Richardson) Oh, I was thinking brisket tonight. It's just easy. I'll see you later.

POWERS: "Little Fires Everywhere" is being compared to "Big Little Lies," another Witherspoon-led adaptation about women in a middle-class Eden, but it lacks that earlier series' fizzy brio. Instead, it rolls out an overstuffed plot involving dark secrets, teen romance, homophobic bullying and unwanted pregnancy, not to mention a custody battle between a Chinese immigrant who abandoned her baby girl and Elena's friend who adopted her - little fires everywhere. For all this stuff, the show hits its peak in the face-offs between Mia and Elena. Their vastly different experiences have given them almost opposed visions of the world, visions that - and here, they're quite alike - they tend to impose on those around them. Elena is a true child of Shaker Heights who raises her kids to believe that the world will be orderly and benevolent if, as she puts it, you make good choices. For Mia, such philosophy reeks of white privilege. You didn't make good choices, she tells Elena. You had good choices. A wounded loner, she teaches her daughter that if she doesn't stand up for herself, nobody will.

No actress is better at self-deceiving entitlement than Witherspoon, who shows us how Elena's chirpy control freak propriety lets her ignore things in the world and herself that she doesn't want to deal with. If Elena doesn't see enough, Washington plays Mia as a woman who may see too much. She edges toward extremes, from feminist vulnerability to obvious faux-politeness to a furious sense of righteousness. We believe that Washington's Mia could have actually made the art that we see, which is stark, eerie and confrontational. One would never use these same words to describe "Little Fires Everywhere."

When they first move into their apartment, Pearl is reading the history of Shaker Heights and learns that it's a town - and I quote - "built on the principle that things can and should be built to avoid uncertainty and disaster." "Little Fires Everywhere" seems to be made in the same spirit. Highly watchable yet staid, it's the kind of classy, well-meaning show that you can imagine Elena calling thought-provoking and Mia turning off.

GROSS: Critic-at-large John Powers reviewed the new series "Little Fires Everywhere." It begins tomorrow on Hulu.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the case for abolishing the Electoral College with Jesse Wegman, author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President." He's a member of the New York Times editorial board. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "VERY EARLY")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "VERY EARLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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