Miniseries “little fires everywhere”: when everything catches fire

After "Big Little Lies" comes the new series from Reese Witherspoon. The thriller turns out to be a drama about racism and motherhood.

The two mothers Mia (K. Washington, l.) and Elena (R. Witherspoon) from "Little Fires Everywhere" Photo by Erin Simkin/Hulu.

The Richardson family home is on fire. Whereas house is an understatement, mansion or estate is probably a better description. But who burned it down? Their own daughter? The new tenant? Or their child? It was arson, that’s for sure. The police officer on the scene confirms it: It was "Little Fires Everywhere."

Even the first pages of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel read like the beginning of an exciting TV series. Liz Tigelaar has now turned this into reality, with Ng as co-author and Reese Witherspoon as producer. Best known as an actress of rather average Hollywood movies like "Ice Cold Angels" or "Naturally Blonde", Witherspoon has now become a successful series creator. Her first project as a producer (and leading actress), the HBO series "Big Little Lies," earned her eight Emmys and four Golden Globes, and her latest, "The Morning Show" (Apple TV), about #MeToo in the media industry, is no less impressive.

Now, in "Little Fires Everywhere," Witherspoon stars as wealthy family head Elena Richardson. Her family of six lives in Shaker Heights, a planned city in Ohio where safety and rules are paramount. Elena, who works part-time as a journalist, tries to squeeze in everyone who doesn’t fit into her closed worldview. Like her unruly teenage daughter, who sets her hair on fire and sabotages the orchestra audition, or her new tenant Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), whom Elena never tires of insisting is "African American" – and to whom she kindly offers a job as housekeeper.

The myth of color blindness

At first glance, the series seems like a string of cliches: the order-loving white family in which the parents even have a fixed time slot for sex (Wednesdays and Saturdays, but not after midnight) versus the single Black mother trying to survive as an artist and haunted by a "dark secret."

"Little Fires Everywhere," starting Friday, May 22 on Amazon Prime Video, also in German dubbing.

At second glance, the eight-episode series reveals itself to be an overdrawn social study in which the oh-so-nice offers and actions of Elena Richardson are exposed as paternalistic gestures. Much more so than in the novel – in which race is only explicitly mentioned in white people – the racism of the white upper class and the socio-economic disparity between the Richardson family and Warren play a role in the series.

The question of who set the house on fire is not at the forefront of the plot – even though the question is explored in recurring flashbacks. Perhaps also because it is clear to everyone who it must have been. Much more than a crime thriller, then, the miniseries is a comedic drama that explores the myth of color-blindness, or the structural overlooking of racism ("I don’t see skin colors"), as well as the issue of (surrogate) motherhood and notions of a good life.

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