LONDON: As faithful period recreations go, “Little Fires Everywhere” channels the nuances of Nineties US suburbia with an almost unparalleled degree of affection. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the eight-episode adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel skillfully captures the cookie-cutter perfection of the white picket-fenced homes and playfully riffs on pop-culture motifs like “The Real World” and stereo faceplates. But while there’s some fun to be had in reliving the 1990s, the show sets up its far-more-serious storyline and tone from the cold open of the very first episode. Mother-of-four Elena Richardson (a stellar Reese Witherspoon) watches her sprawling house go up in flames and viewers are led to believe that troubled daughter Izzy is the main culprit. Over the following episodes, the show backtracks a few months to the point where free-spirited artist Mia Warren (a subtly intense Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl move into town, starting a chain of events that leads to the two families becoming intertwined, and to the titular blaze.
The two mothers clash almost instantly over their different approaches to life and parenting, while the arrival of Mia and Pearl (both black and ostensibly poorer than many of Shaker’s residents) also threatens to upset the carefully cultivated status quo enjoyed by the predominantly white community. The series sets its two leads up in direct opposition — so it’s fortunate that Witherspoon and Washington not only spark off one another with palpable dynamism, but also dominate when apart, imbuing their characters with very different (yet equally captivating) maternal ferocity. There’s some awkward, heavy-handed exploration of racial disparity in the late 20th century, but with limited running time, this discourse tends to get lumped in with the show’s other talking points — class, art, adoption and motherhood. On occasion, this propels the narrative along nicely, but there are times when it may have been better to slow down a little and get into the intricacies of some of the other characters.
Instead, the show delves deep into the two leads’ backstories, showing how their different experiences have molded them, and the writers and directors (including the late Lynn Shelton) spend what little time remains with their respective families. Much like Ng’s novel, the Richardsons and the Warrens are the focus, but the show leans even more heavily on Witherspoon and Washington. Thankfully, with actors so engaging, it’s a choice that pays off.