I’m wondering: did we need this? This family melodrama that feels like premium television in the vein of a Big Little Lies, but comes across as a drastically dialed-back version of the same. And maybe that’s an HBO versus Hulu thing, but I think perhaps the issue is that the source material (based on what I understand to be a popular novel by Celeste Ng) just doesn’t translate the way they expected to the screen. It’s not pulpy. It’s not intellectual or deep or any other thing that would make it pop on screen. Instead it’s a story about suburban families from the opposite sides of the track who come into contact and… well, there’s a fire.
I’m not spoiling anything here, mind you. It’s one of those series tropes that is so de rigueur these days where we start with the end. So we know eventually the Richardson’s giant house in tony Shaker Heights, OH is burned to the ground with the family still inside. And, no, they don’t burn to death. But perhaps you, like me, kind of wished they had by the end. The drama is great. The drama is overwrought. The drama is sometimes confusing. But the drama is rarely affecting or fun or even interesting. I hate to say it, but a large part of this sits on the shoulders of one character. Or maybe one actor: Kerry Washington.
I’m unsure, frankly, if it’s the character that I hate, or just the annoying job Washington does with her. I think it’s both. I have very little experience with her. I watched a little bit of Scandal and seem to recall enjoying her performance. I think. And she’s lovely in those beauty ads. But her acting tics are just too much to ignore here. She scowls constantly. And I know part of it is her face, but she has this grimace that she does at the conclusion of literally every single scene she’s in that is so distracting, Ms. Hipster and I found ourselves rolling our eyes each and every time. Her character is completely humorless and sour and constantly doing the wrong thing for no apparent reason. And Washington leans into it, from what I can tell. Just making weird faces at people and generally putting this alienating “serious” streak in a show that is and should be nothing more than a domestic soap opera. The whole thing — her character and her portrayal of said character — is kind of off-putting. It’s hard to describe, but I winced every time her character came on screen.
Did I mention the series tried to tackle everything from racism to classism to interracial dating to appropriation to abortion to abuse to gay themes to undocumented status to the immigrant story to adoption? I’ve heard these types of rich people / poor people tales referred to as an upstairs / downstairs thing, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. Essentially Elena and Bill Richardson (Witherspoon and Joshua Jackson) are this fancy-pants couple in a wealthy, white enclave outside Cleveland. Elena is basically a grown-up version of Election’s Tracy Flick. Who was, famously, also played by Witherspoon. It’s a little on the nose, truth be told, but this fastidious, uptight overachieving busy-body with underlying rage seems to kind of be her jam as she settles into her career’s second act. Anyhow, mysterious poor person, Mia Warren (Washington), moves into town with her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). They arrive in their shitty car with few possessions and very little plan on where to live. I’m honestly not sure what we’re supposed to think here, but as luck would have it Elena’s white guilt kicks in and she rents Mia an apartment after first trying to have her arrested as a transient. Or something like that.
Eventually the two families get entangled. In addition to her waitressing job at a Chinese restaurant (which seemed odd, but whatever), Mia is hired by Elena to be their housekeeper. Or house helper. Another weird guilt move by Elena. Of course Mia’s real passion is art, which she produces in her apartment while smoking weed and shooing her daughter away from even looking at her work. Her daughter, Pearl, has become fast friends with Elena’s son, Moody (Gavin Lewis), and has been brought into the extended family as a friend. And on and on. The Richardson’s other three children all have their privileged issues. One is asked to be tooooo perfect. The other is gay and, well, misunderstood, maybe? And then there’s Trip (Jordan Elsass) who doesn’t seem to have any issues other than people just think he’s just a dumb jock, but people just don’t get that he’s actually a sensitive dumb jock! Mishigas ensues.
Through all the family machinations, Joshua Jackson’s character just kind of sleepwalks around and talks in this weird, stiff “dad” voice that Jackson seems to have affected. This ain’t Fringe. There’s this whole side dalliance about a Chinese immigrant from Mia’s job and her giving up her baby and trying to get it back with the help of Mia that borders on asinine. It’s so nonsensical and completely distracting and just adds to the confusion and annoyance over the Mia character. She gives not a shit about her lovely daughter, Pearl, but is going to risk everything to help this virtual stranger? A stranger whose character, by the way, seems to communicate by constantly screaming and being incredibly aggressive with the woman who is trying to assist her. It all makes no sense. And, yes, the series is trying to show us the relationships between mothers and daughters and relationships between the classes, but everything about all of it is clumsy and ill-fitting.
For all of this, there are a couple bright spots. Lexi Underwood is great as Washington’s daughter. In fact, most of the kids are decent. Someone actually put some thought into their characters and wrote appropriately for them. It’s the adults here that are atrocious. The rich, white savior Witherspoon character is getting old at this point. Jackson is a non-factor. And I’ve expressed my feeling about Washington. Even Rosemarie DeWitt, who is usually terrific, is asked to basically throw herself around and be super-unappealing. The whole adult situation makes it unclear who we’re supposed to care about or want to care about. And then the end happens and… well, I’m not even really sure how any of it reconciles any of it. I think the show’s creators think they’ve given us a satisfactory conclusion, but none of it ties back and completes the character arcs. I suppose maybe it’s supposed to be symbolic, what with the Richardson house burning down, but they just didn’t do the work to justify it. Disappointing.