When it was announced, Little Fires Everywhere was instantly labelled the next Big Little Lies. Considering the critical acclaim and awards the latter show garnered, that's something those involved in Little Fires Everywhere, an adaptation of Celeste Ng's 2017 book of the same name, were more than happy to allow.
It was an understandable comparison, too. Both shows star and are produced by Reese Witherspoon, they each have "little" in their titles, they explore similar themes, are adaptations of hugely popular novels and show Oscar-winner Witherspoon going toe-to-toe with numerous other acting titans.
But while Big Little Lies allowed Witherspoon to collaborate with stars such as Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and, in its second season, Meryl Streep, on Little Fires Everywhere, Witherspoon and Kerry Washington constitute the only acting heavyweights among the cast. The Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated Scandal star is also a producer on the show.
Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a mother of four in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who is intent on maintaining the facade of her picture-perfect family, even though the behaviour of her youngest daughter Izzy (Megan Stott), causes Elena more and more concern. Her life is also becoming increasingly interconnected with Washington's Mia Warren, an artist who has recently moved to the town with her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood).
Not only does Mia rent a home from Elena, the artist starts to work as her housekeeper. Elena soon notices some discrepancies in Mia's story, though, so starts to investigate her employee's mysterious past.
While Washington and Witherspoon are the main draws of Little Fires Everywhere, and every aspect of the story spreads out from Mia and Elena's relationship, their teenage children become more and more integral to the show as the series progresses. At first, Pearl strikes up a friendship with Elena's youngest son, Moody (Gavin Lewis), as they are the same age, only for her to become increasingly obsessed with Elena's eldest daughter, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn). Pearl then starts a romance with Elena's other son, Trip (Jordan Elsass), much to the chagrin of Moody. Izzy also bonds with Mia over their love of art.
It speaks volumes for Little Fires Everywhere's young cast that the show doesn't wilt when the story shifts its focus to them. Underwood is especially revelatory in her role. Not only does she draw your eye simply with her intriguing presence, but she gives an understated, yet deeply nuanced and authentic portrayal as Pearl, for which she shifts from cool to kooky and from naive to wise without ever missing a beat.
Stott never quite matches the heights of Underwood's performance, but there are several moments when Izzy's troubles really resonate and, while the rest of the Richardson children work much better as an ensemble than when they are alone, their sibling disputes and patter are also enjoyable.
Their excellent work makes it all the more disappointing, and even frustrating, that Witherspoon and Washington fail to ignite and elevate Little Fires Everywhere to something greater.
It's difficult to put a finger on exactly why that's the case. Over the course of the first two episodes, the duo share several scenes, each of which involves intense exchanges, passive-aggressiveness, or involve them opening up and being honest with each other. But none of these moments are overly compelling or powerful.
Washington almost feels miscast as Mia, as the smarts and charm that make her such a formidable on-screen talent are replaced by an edge and paranoia that are more difficult to watch, rather than being riveting. Meanwhile, even though Elena has a different personality to the character Witherspoon plays on Big Little Lies, Madeline Mackenzie, the actress is never able to emerge from the shadow of the hit show.
Almost every prominent actor involved with Little Fires Everywhere has been in shows that seem superior to this latest venture. As well as Witherspoon and Washington's links to Big Little Lies and Scandal respectively, Elena's husband is played by Joshua Jackson, who is coming off The Affair, while Mad Men actress Rosemarie DeWitt becomes more and more involved as Elena's best friend Linda McCullough.
It doesn't help that those earlier shows explored similar themes to Little Fires Everywhere, which confronts issues of race, motherhood, class and gender head-on. But, once again, it never manages to do that in a genuinely thought-provoking or affecting manner. Instead it mostly comes across as a little preachy and predictable.
Despite not being at their best, Washington and Witherspoon have the gravitas and skill to stop Little Fires Everywhere from being a complete disaster, but considering the talent and money involved in the show, that's simply not good enough.
The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere will be available for streaming today on Hulu. The remaining episodes will be available every Wednesday starting next week