Little Fires Everywhere is poised to become the next Big Little Lies. It has all the ingredients: a central mystery, complicated neighborhood dynamics, an all-star cast; both are based on popular books and share Reese Witherspoon as an executive producer. The most notable distinction in Hulu’s newest mini-series is that the adults aren’t the only ones getting involved with the drama; it gives legitimate storylines to the show’s five young actors, highlighting that high school is more than homecoming and pep rallies. (But it has those too.)
The series opens with an ending: Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson watches, distraught, from the side of the street as her beautiful house burns. The next scene shows Elena and her husband Bill, played by Joshua Jackson, talking to authorities in the aftermath of the righteous blaze, while three of their four children — Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), and Moody (Gavin Lewis) — sit in the car, wondering what their mom is saying. “She’ll probably find a way to blame Izzy,” Lexie says, of their youngest sibling, the so-called problem child, played by Megan Stott.
From the opening scenes, it’s clear that the teens are going to play a pivotal role in the narrative, but first, the show must define their central adult rivalry: local busy-body Elena versus Kerry Washington’s elusive neighborhood newcomer, Mia Warren. It’s a truly fierce dynamic. But while Washington and Witherspoon slowly build from the kind of passive-aggressive tit-for-tat that can only happen in the face of extreme privilege and ignorance to a stunning legal showdown, the show’s teens — the four Richardsons plus Mia’s daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood) — offer a fresh lens on the social issues we now hold in the forefront of our minds.
Jade Pettyjohn's Lexie, Lexi Underwood's Pearl, Jordan Elsass's Trip, and Gavin Lewis's Moody on Little Fires Everywhere.
“Our goal with teen storylines was to treat them and hold them in the same way as we treat and hold the adult storylines,” showrunner Liz Tigelaar tells MTV News. Whereas Witherspoon and Washington joked on set about playing versions of their own mothers, the writers really saw their own coming of age in the teens. Well, most of them. “No one has the confidence of Trip or Lexie so they're out,” Tigelaar laughs. “But there's a lot of Izzys, Pearls, and Moodys, basically. So that's the writers in a nutshell.”
Set mostly in 1997, think of the high school storylines as history lessons, of sorts, about how young people understood race, sexuality, feminism, and privilege two decades ago. Izzy stands at that particular intersection while figuring out who she is and how to express herself.
“Izzy is rebellious and outspoken,” Stott describes. “She's going to fight for what she wants to, and she's going to believe what she wants to believe in. But if she has to do it at the cost of herself, it's not going to happen.”
Izzy’s stubborn authenticity both helps and hurts her as she begins her freshman year. It opens her up to exploring parts of herself that she might not explore if she were, say, more like her older sister Lexie, who is practically a carbon copy of their prim-and-proper mother. Izzy becomes the target of bullying. Their jab of choice: calling her a lesbian.
Although Izzy doesn’t address the rumors, her presumed sexuality completely ostracizes her from her friends and her family, driving the wedge between Izzy and Elena even deeper.
Megan Stott's Izzy refuses to be anyone but herself.
Bullying isn’t specific to any decade — Stott was able to infuse her role with the loneliness her own childhood bullies made her feel — but that Izzy was bullied so intensely for her sexuality took her by surprise, forcing her to examine her own privilege. “In today's times, if you're any part of the LGBT community, we see you as who you are and we accept that,” she says. “And back then, it was a lot harsher. … People were very cruel about it.”
The starkest reminder of the difference between then and now comes during a Richardson family dinner in Episode 3. During a conversation about inclusivity, racism, and feminism, Izzy brings up Lilith Fair, the all-female music festival that made its triumphant debut in 1997. “No wonder they call you Ellen,” Trip says. Izzy looks at him, pained, and leaves the table in a huff.
Elena, revealing one of her many social blind spots, needs clarification, and Moody assures us all, Izzy is not compared to Ellen DeGeneres because she’s funny. It’s because that same year, in 1997, DeGeneres (along with her sitcom character) came out as a lesbian on her widely watched sitcom, Ellen. Despite the show’s enduring popularity before “The Puppy Episode” aired, viewers at the time criticized the series. Ellen was cancelled the following season. DeGeneres’s career suffered, as did that of the episode’s guest star, Laura Dern.
“Part of the reason we wanted to put that Ellen [reference] in is because obviously Ellen today, and even 10 years after that, became so beloved by — I mean, certainly white suburbanites — but everybody,” Tigelaar says. “And to think that there was a time when she was so just shunned … and to be able to look back and think, ‘Oh, that's how people reacted back then.’”
Reese Witherspoon's Elena looks proud as Izzy tries to find her identity.
Little Fires Everywhere offers an alternative reality to the one we’re currently living in Izzy’s coming-of-age story. It highlights that it's never easy to be judged for something you can’t control, regardless of your other circumstances. All together, the teen storylines paint a nuanced portrait of privilege that feels both illuminating and validating for any person who’s felt adversity.
Tigelaar hopes these compounded experiences will encourage audiences to think critically about the privilege and prejudice that’s been passed down to them. “You want to take the good and not repeat the bad, but first you have to see it clearly,” she says. “Maybe they'll see themselves, they'll think about how they think about things, and maybe by the end, they'll see things a little differently, in a new way they hadn't thought of before.”
The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere are streaming on Hulu now. New episodes will drop on Wednesdays.