I’ve come to believe Reese Witherspoon has more energy than all these energetic and driven characters she’s been playing on streaming platforms across this great land of ours.
Since 2017, Witherspoon has logged 14 episodes as wealthy helicopter mother and social ringleader Madeline Mackenzie on the HBO series “Big Little Lies”; a 10-episode run as a regional TV reporter turned network rising star on the AppleTV+ series “The Morning Show,” and now eight episodes as a journalist, wife, mother and whirling dervish busybody in the Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere.”
Witherspoon is also a producer on all three series, and “Legally Blonde 3” is on the way, and let’s not forget “Reese’s Book Club.” Dang!
Any worries Witherspoon might be spreading herself thin as an actor are dispelled the second she appears onscreen and disappears into the role of Elena Richardson, who is a kind of Shaker Heights counterpart to the Monterey-based Madeline on “Big Little Lies.” Once again, Witherspoon proves to be great at playing moms who love their children with all their heart and are also driving their children crazy every waking moment.
In other words, a mom.
Premiering with three episodes on March 18, “Little Fires Everywhere” is based on the 2017 bestseller of the same title by Celeste Ng. It’s set in 1997, in the upper-class Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights — a planned community with an idyllic sense of itself as the home of the American Dream.
It’s just that dream is more easily attained if you’re white. Subtle and not-so-subtle themes of institutional racism and class warfare are in the forefront throughout “Little Fires Everywhere.” Just beyond the fine-trimmed lawns, some beautiful people are harboring and sometimes expressing and acting on some pretty ugly thoughts.
The series literally lives up to its title in the opening scene, as the Richardson family home has been destroyed by a blaze of suspicious origins. “There were little fires everywhere,” says a fire official, making it clear this was arson.
Who would do such a thing? Flash back four months earlier, and we meet Elena, her family and the people closest to her — and before you know it, we can spot three or four individuals who could have been responsible for setting that fire.
Elena awakes each morning as if shot out of a cannon — knocking on the kids’ bedroom doors and telling them to rise and shine, checking all the entries on the enormous, color-coded calendar mounted in the kitchen, and then zooming out for a full day of working at the local newspaper, organizing the next meeting of the ladies’ book club, attending school functions, etc.
Elena and her successful lawyer husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) own a duplex apartment, and in a gesture of largesse which makes Elena feel really good about herself, she rents a unit at a reduced price to Kerry Washington’s Mia Warren, an artist and single mother who moves from town to town with her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood, daughter of Blair Underwood, who stars in “Self-Made,” another streaming series debuting this week.)
Mia’s got a lot going on. She is indeed a talented installation-art sculptor and photographer, but when we first meet Mia and Pearl, they’re living in their car. It’s not quite clear if Mia is a survivor and a fighter, or a con artist and schemer. Maybe a little of both.
Elena has four teenage children: Trip (Jordan Elsass), an amiable jock; Lexi (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s a mini-Elena for better or worse; Moody (Gavin Lewis), a sweet kid who becomes friends with Pearl, and Izzy (Megan Stott), the youngest, who is troubled and rebellious and is aggressively pushing back against her mother’s attempts to put her in a pretty little box.
Elena and Mia have a complicated dynamic, made all the more so when Elena hires Mia to “manage the house,” which sounds a lot better than housekeeper/cook/maid. Mia grows resentful as Pearl becomes enamored with the Richardson family, even as Mia strikes a connection with Izzy, an aspiring artist.
There’s a big controversy right out of a daytime soap opera, involving Mia’s co-worker at the restaurant where she works at night (Mia takes on a LOT of jobs), and Elena’s fellow Real Housewife of Shaker Heights, Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is even more tightly wound than Elena, if that’s possible. There’s also a lot of wine drinking and pot-smoking, and period-piece pop culture references to “The Vagina Monologues” and MTV’s “The Real World” and “Before Sunrise.”
One moment, Elena and Mia are shooting daggers at one another from across a crowded room. The next, they’re sharing a bottle of wine and bonding over the joys and heartbreaks of being a mother.
Before this chapter in their respective lives is over, a lot of fires big and small, real and metaphorical, will be ignited, and it’s possible not everyone will be left standing when the smoke clears.