Around these characters, “Little Fires” piles up an industrial load of themes and ideas. It’s about the stresses of motherhood, and it’s about suburban conformity, and it sees both of those through the filter of race. Mia fights against Pearl’s willing assimilation into the Richardson clan, which entails oblivious appropriations of her experiences and identity for her new friends’ own purposes — college essays, potentially shameful medical procedures.
Looming behind the family drama is a double-barreled mystery. Elena eventually gets to use her reporting skills to investigate Mia’s shadowy past. And the viewer knows, from the show’s opening moments, that someone is going to burn down the Richardsons’ vintage McMansion before the season is over.
It’s a busy and reasonably intriguing story if you skate over its less convincing twists. And it benefits from excellent work by Washington and Underwood — the scenes between Mia and Pearl, both the tender and the angry ones, are the show’s highlights.
The real dramatic downfall, though, is how the deck is stacked against Elena, and therefore Witherspoon, even though it’s her project. The depiction of Elena as a clueless and rigid white suburbanite — shocked when her book club reads “The Vagina Monologues,” maintaining a mammoth color-coded family calendar, nattering on sanctimoniously and never missing a chance to make a tone-deaf remark — gets almost cartoonish.
It’s as if Witherspoon were being asked to do one of her comic roles from “Election” or “Legally Blonde” but with all the humor drained out, and much of her performance feels correspondingly stiff and unnatural, though she has some good scenes in later episodes when Elena becomes obsessed with uncovering Mia’s secrets.
That conception of Elena fits a pattern, an approach “Little Fires” shares with an awful lot of current series: Rather than presenting characters in the round and then developing them, it presents characters as terms in a moral and cultural equation and then slowly reveals their pasts. For the viewer, the surprises are in the revelations and not in the choices the characters make, and rather than seeing the characters grow and change, we just see them being moved around the game board.
The women’s pictures of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s often did something similar, but they compensated with an intensity and style that translated into real emotion. “Little Fires” needed its Douglas Sirk.