Nervous Recs: ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Shows That the 90s Weren’t ‘Simpler Times’April 14, 2020
It's not every day that a new series unites two of my favorite actresses: Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. It's been almost two decades since my introduction to Washington as she portrayed Chenille, a single teen mother in Save the Last Dance, and Witherspoon as Annette, the bad girl posing as a goody-two-shoes in Cruel Intentions. I could have spent quarantine diving into the hysteria of Tiger King, but I was craving a show something that had nothing to do with Joe Exotic.
Little did I know, Little Fires Everywhere, a new Hulu drama series, would bring elements of those characters to the series' Ohio suburb. Little Fires Everywhere is what happens when underlying tensions within race and class coalesce. It dismantles the whitewashed, homogenous 90s utopia that Friends embraced, revealing a less sunny version of the decade highlighting its subtle but still pervasive racism. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The series, based on the novel by Celeste Ng, chronicles two families in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Mia Warren (played by Washington) and her daughter Pearl have never lived anywhere for more than a few months, and the Midwestern suburb is their new—probably temporary—home. Elena Richardson (played by Witherspoon) is a journalist for the local paper, striving to be the quintessential supermom to four teenagers. Mia and Elena couldn't be more different; Mia smokes weed while working on her artwork, while Elena can't even say "vagina" at her book club about The Vagina Monologues. When Elena becomes Mia's landlord, we see life has dealt each mother different hands, and their respective social stigmas show that they've each made poor choices—just different ones based on their places in this world.
Little Fires Everywhere doesn't only contextualize race in black and white terms; it also analyzes how race factors into motherhood and whom society considers a fit parent. When the neighborhood learns that the baby Elena's friend Linda plans to adopt is the child of Mia's coworker, a Chinese immigrant named Bebe, all hell breaks loose. This is Shaker Heights, after all, a community so concerned with appearances that you'll be fined if the grass on your lawn is over six inches. Worried that the biological mother might want to reclaim her maternal rights, Linda launches into a nasty rant about how Bebe is an "illegal alien" who doesn't deserve her baby. By episode six, we see Elena's journey with motherhood has been overwhelming for her, too—even as a married woman with two homes and blinding white privilege. But Elena and Linda never consider why Bebe, an undocumented immigrant with few resources, might choose to leave her newborn child at a fire station.
At a glance, Little Fires Everywhere seems like your typical dose of middle-aged neighborhood drama, but it's so much more than that. The set design and soundtrack are spot-on (Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" at the school dance is peak 1997), but the real beauty is in the details of how the mothers interact with each other. Elena, afraid to be perceived as racist, asks Mia to be her "house manager," though she really means her maid. Elena's daughter Lexie uses a racist experience Pearl had at school for her Yale admission essay, turning it into a bogus story about sexism and third-wave feminism—and somehow, it isn't even the worst thing she does to Pearl. The Richardsons are rigid in how they cling to calling Black people "African Americans," despite discussing the term as antiquated over dinner. It's a clever window into how the family dismisses race, even though their lives are consumed by it.
"You made this about race the day you stood on the street and begged me to be your maid," Mia tells Elena. "White women always be friends with their maid. I was not your maid, Elena. And I was never your friend."
Mia's outburst to Elena stands to be the crux of the entire series. There is a constant need to reboot the sitcoms of the 90s, holding on to the idea that somehow they were simpler times. But for some, they weren't. The microaggressions were always there, and they still are. Racism is not always outfitted in a Southern drawl. Sometimes, it looks like the white picket fences, otherwise known as the American dream.
Little Fires Everywhere is available to stream on Hulu.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.