The star power of Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon eclipses all else in “Little Fires Everywhere”

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington star in Hulu's "Little Fires Everywhere"

By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service 

In the age of pandemic and social distancing, picking the right television show to stream is crucial. Looking for a soapy, star-studded, melodramatic distraction? Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” is the perfect choice. 

Superstars? Check. Mystery? Check. Copious amounts of wine drinking? Double-check.

This show, based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. If the first three episodes, which premiered Wednesday, are any indication, the rest of the series will be characterized by not only the struggle between the characters, but the epic push and pull between its two uber-charismatic leads.

The show follows the idyllic Richardson family, headed by matriarch Elena (Witherspoon) after their lives are upended when the mysterious Mia Warren (Washington) and her daughter enter the picture. 

In its portrayal of a well-meaning, if ignorant, white woman trying to help a black woman by offering her a job as their housekeeper, the show, while honest about the issues it portrays, is heavy-handed in its approach to racial conflict and microaggressions. 

“I’m sure you have so much in common,” Richardson quips to two black teens who have never met before and who, besides their race, don’t appear to have a thing in common. After the oldest Richardson daughter buys Warren’s daughter an expensive dress to wear to homecoming, she insists her daughter return the dress.

“You’re letting some rich, spoiled white girl turn you into her dress-up doll,” she yells. 

True, neither one of these actresses are known for their subtlety. Both Washington and Witherspoon are comfortable in showy roles and fine with showcasing their dark side – Washington especially, whose most famous role is that of Olivia Pope in the hit show “Scandal.” 

But Witherspoon, while mostly remembered for her portrayal of sunny Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” is also not one to shy away from shaded characters – think Tracy Flick in “Election,” or more recently, Madeline Mackenzie in HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” 

The similarities between the actresses don’t end there. When either one of these women appears on screen, you can expect her to have the following traits: She has a hostile demeanor, but you still want her on your side; she will most definitely be hiding a dirty secret; she drinks wine like it’s an Olympic event.

Both of these women are bonafide stars in their own right and the similar energy each brings to her craft makes the struggle – both between the characters and between the actresses themselves – mesmerizing. Witherspoon, with all her poised charm, seems like she could throw a pretty good punch if provoked. Washington has a stillness to her rage, but she seems to be constantly on a precipice about to leap off. 

Each woman has the clout and talent to pull an audience on their own – together, they’re unstoppable. The show is at its strongest when it focuses on the interactions between the two. They make a casual conversation over a glass of wine feel like unadulterated war, sparring with loaded silences and meaningful glances as they talk about the essence of motherhood and why women should look at certain parts of their own body once in a while. 

That may sound ridiculous, but that’s what’s great about “Little Fires Everywhere.” Is it overstated? Yes. Is it prestige television? Too soon to tell. But the power of these two women eclipses all else. And after all, with stars who bring the drama like Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, is the audience really tuning in for subtlety? Absolutely not.

“Little Fires Everywhere” premiered on Hulu March 18, and new episodes will drop every Wednesday.

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