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Little Fires Everywhere is an Extravaganza of 90s References

The new Hulu series really wants you to know it's set in Clinton-era U.S.A.
  • Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)
    Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)

    The new Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, which premiered its first three episodes on the streaming platform this week, is set in the Ohio suburban enclave of Shaker Heights, where the wealthy Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) rents a home to single mother Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), and before long their family lives begin to entangle. The setting is crucial, as the white suburb, with its streets full of beautiful expensive homes and perfectly trimmed lawns (as per community bylaws), seems to exclude other black people like Mia and her daughter, Pearl. But, while Shaker Heights looms large in these early episodes, the show's era looms even larger, as the series is set in the late 1990s.

    How do we know it's the 90s? Well, once we get past the flash-forward of Elena and her family watching their house burn down (and a police investigator speaks the show's title verbatim), we're greeted by the sounds of Annie Lennox's "Little Bird" on the soundtrack (released: 1993). Soon after, Elena mentions her book club trying to decide between reading The Vagina Monologues (premiered 1996) or Memoirs of a Geisha (published 1997). These moments, while fleeting, are not accidental. They're there so the audience gets a clear signal to orient themselves in the late 90s. And if they were at all confused, how about the corded car-phone Elena uses in the first 15 minutes?

    These references aren't meant to be kitschy or campy, no matter how Rodham Clinton those power suits on Elena get. But the fact that they come so hot and heavy throughout the episode pretty much guarantees that it's going to be one of the three main takeaways from this first set of episodes: 1) How great are Reese and Kerry?! 2) It is EERIE how similar the four performers playing Reese's kids look; and 3) IT'S ALL SO VERY 90s! The decade is coursing through Elena's work — she unsubtly brags about having interviewed Janet Reno, and we see her in the middle of writing an article about Paula Jones. It's sldo in her kids' casual conversations. Eldest daughter Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) makes reference to riding the "Raptor," which in 1994 was the brand new rollercoaster at nearby Cedar Point. Later, the kids gather to watch The Real World: Boston (placing the events of the show exactly in 1997) before downshifting into a thrillingly extended conversation about Puck and Pedro and the San Francisco season of MTV's reality ground-breaker. Counting Crows plays on the soundtrack. Problem child Izzie wants a short haircut like Drew Barrymore's in Mad Love and Boys on the Side. And just when you think the whole thing is a symptom of pilot-episode overload, the second episode kicks off with Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." Hey, when your show's set in the late 90s, you gotta let 'em know.

    The whole thing is a carnival of delights for anyone who came of age in the era. Whether that timeline plays into the greater themes of the series remains to be seen. For now, the period setting of Little Fires Everywhere places it in good company with a swath of recent shows excavating our recent past. There was Fresh Off the Boat, which situated itself in early-90s Shaq-obsessed Orlando. G.L.O.W takes place in the 80s, opening the door for one of TV's most consistently awesome needle drops. Hulu's junior-high memoir comedy Pen15 sets itself exactly in the year 2000, the better to situate itself in the boy-band-saturated lives of creators/stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle.

    As a suburban drama, Little Fires Everywhere isn't looking to mine comedy from its 90s references. Instead, the saturation of period detail calls to mind something like a less-ethereal Virgin Suicides, whose late-'70s setting was dictated by Josh Hartnett's feathered hair and Heart on the soundtrack.

    Perhaps the greatest 90s throwback in Little Fires Everywhere is the presence of Joshua Jackson as Elena's husband. Back in 1997, Jackson was mere months away from debuting on Dawson's Creek, the teen-drama sensation that launched his career and (along with fellow WB series Felicity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) essentially helped create the concept of "shippers." Jackson and Witherspoon's on-screen marriage even serves as a late-90s callback to Cruel Intentions, the 1999 horny-trust-fund-teens remake of Dangerous Liaisons. While Jackson and Witherspoon never actually shared the screen in that film, his character was having sex with her character's cousin, and she was falling in love with his blackmailer. So, reunion it is!

    It's a reunion for all of us, in fact. Scream along to Meredith Brooks's "Bitch" and get your tickets to Titanic, y'all. It's time to start falling in love with 1997 again.

    The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere are now streaming on Hulu. New episodes will be released Wednesdays through late April.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Little Fires Everywhere, Hulu, The Real World, Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon