Witherspoon and Washington Burning Bright

Little Fires Everywhere Review

Reese Witherspoon has always been one of the most exceptional actresses working, from her stunning debut in The Man of the Moon to Election to her Oscar winning turn in Walk the Line, she has been one of the most superbly quiet performers in all of film. And just in the last two years, television has witness what some have called the Reenaissance, particularly in her incredible work as Madeline, the Monterrey mother who tries to be quietly forceful in everyone else’s life and can barely control he own, in the HBO powerhouse drama Big Little Lies.

Those have been watching her early work as Elena on Hulu’s new limited series Little Fires Everywhere could make the argument that her work is just a variation on Madeline. Elena is a busy mother with a seemingly happy marriage and four children. She had a career that she set ahead for motherhood, and she believes in the intricacy of planning every detail of her life. When her husband tries to persuade her to have sex, she gently tells him: ‘We have sex Wednesday and Saturday.’ But Elena’s world is far darker than Madeline’s was (at least in Season 1). Her real problem seems to be with her youngest daughter, Isabella. She has plans for all her children, and Izzy (as she insists on calling herself) has become increasingly hard to love as is going through some very dark turmoil (She sets fire to her hair, has a cut a way she doesn’t like, and when its time to do what could be a critical musical audition for her future, she writes on her forehead in black marker: “NOT YOUR PUPPET” Elena can see that there’s trouble. Everyone else says she’s overreacting.

Witherspoon as always is engrossing to watch, but just as in every work she’s done in TV so far, she seems destined to be eclipsed by a brighter sun. In Big Little Lies, it’s Nicole Kidman. In The Morning Show, it’s Jennifer Anniston. And here, it definitely looks like it’s going to be Kerry Washington.

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Washington plays Mia Warren, and when we first meet her she and her daughter are living out of their car. She and her daughter have clearly been on their own for awhile — Pearl tells Elena’s son Moody that they’ve been doing this so long that she never paints one of her rooms. Elena and Mia meet early and their behavior is combustible. Elena starts by calling the police and warning them about her car, she then shows them a place and makes an exception on renting, out of a combination of white guilt and her determination to ‘fix’ things, and then tries to ask Mia if she wants to me their ‘housekeeper’, an attitude that Mia rages about initially and clearly doesn’t like the way their children are hanging out. There is clearly some darkness in their past (we don’t know the details yet) but there’s clearly something that she isn’t telling us. The first episode ends with Elena learning that Mia Warren has already lied to her.

I’ve expressed my disdain for Washington’s work on Scandal repeatedly, but I’ve always known she was a great actress and there is more depth and range in one episode than I ever saw her show as Olivia Pope. Even if the only draw for Little Fires was watching these two actresses bounce off each other, it would be worth the draw. But there are several other actors I admire in this cast — Joshua Jackson and Rosemarie DeWitt continue to show why they are among the most undervalued actors in TV, and all of the children — especially Megan Stott as Izzy and Lexi Underwood as Pearl — reveal a level of depth that we rarely got, with some exceptions, on Big Little Lies.

Not that we don’t know there’s some trauma in the future. In the opening second we saw the Richardson family stand among the rubble of the house, and saw Elena being question as to who tried to burn it down — with her in it. I have no doubt everybody has suspects already, but I’m more than content to let the mystery simmer before igniting. I also admire Hulu’s restraint when it comes to releasing its series — you can’t binge it all at once, as you could on Netflix or Amazon, you have to have a little more patience. This may be the best reason to subscribe to Hulu for those of us who never could get into The Handmaid’s Tale. And for those of us waiting (and hoping) for a third season of Big Little Lies, this is a marvelous stopgap.

My score: 4.25 stars.

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After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

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