The limited series is more than your standard suburban whodunit.
Little Fires Everywhere
Credit: Erin Simkin/Hulu

Little Fires Everywhere begins, as so many stories do these days, at the end. A stunned Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) watches as her family's home — a stately brick Tudor in Shaker Heights, Ohio — burns to the ground in 1997. You don't need a degree in TV to know that we'll spend the next eight episodes learning what led up to the fire — but Hulu's sharp, soapy, and emotionally intense limited series is more than your standard suburban whodunit.

Elena is the kind of woman who is never fully dressed without a string of pearls. She portions out her nightly glass of chardonnay in a Pyrex measuring cup and hands her four teenagers — Moody (Gavin Lewis), Izzy (Megan Stott), Trip (Jordan Elsass), and Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) — color-coded lunch bags as they head off to school. When she spots Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), sleeping in their beat-up Chevette, Elena's first instinct is to call the police. But in a spasm of compassion and white-liberal guilt, she ends up renting Mia and Pearl an apartment. "You know what felt good?" Elena tells her family. "Helping."

But is she? Helping, that is? More likely, Elena is acting out of something called "ambivalent prejudice," which Dr. Google describes as "the discomfort of recognizing your conflicting feelings about someone who is different from you." And in Little Fires (premiering March 18 on Hulu), this ambivalence goes both ways: Mia, an artist and part-time waitress, leads an itinerant life with Pearl, traveling from state to state as the muse moves her. Mia and Pearl always have enough to get by, but no more — and it bothers Mia when Pearl begins hanging out with Moody and his siblings, kids who have never wanted for anything. But the life Mia has framed as a liberating, free-spirit adventure is based on a lie.

As different as Mia and Elena are, they each have built their existence, and their concept of motherhood, around a choice they won't allow themselves to regret. For reasons that are far too complicated to explain here, Mia and Elena wind up on opposing sides of a custody battle between a Chinese immigrant (Huang Lu) and a wealthy Shaker Heights couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults). The fragile peace between them explodes into open hostility.

Witherspoon slips into Elena's twinsets with prim precision, punctuating her performance with small choices — a pinched face here, a chilly hair-tuck there — that are little masterpieces of passive aggression. Washington's Mia is a fierce and prickly protector, forever teetering on the edge of a rage breakdown. Watching the actresses face off in later episodes delivers all the giddy pleasure of a Krystle-Alexis showdown, minus the hair-pulling. Joshua Jackson, who has always excelled at playing well-meaning guys with above-average EQs, is superb as Bill Richardson, an old-school dad who manages his wife's anxieties with weary patience.

There's also a rich and satisfying teen drama nestled inside Little Fires' saga of adult ennui. The young cast — especially Stott as the angsty Izzy and Lewis as the lovelorn Moody — is impressive. (Tiffany Boone, who plays young Mia in flashbacks, is uncannily Washington-esque.) Pearl's entanglement with the Richardson kids results in turmoil both urgent (Moody's unrequited crush) and existential (Lexie, desperate for a college-essay topic, envies Pearl's life of "hardship"). For Elena, loving her children means keeping them on a well-manicured path. "If you follow the rules, you'll succeed," she tells Izzy. The beauty of Little Fires Everywhere lies in the complicated, unexpected ways that life proves her wrong. Grade: A-

Little Fires Everywhere premieres Wednesday, March 18, on Hulu.

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