Critics' Conversation: 'Little Fires Everywhere,' 'Avenue 5' and When Pedigree TV Disappoints

10rev_opener_w-H 2020
Courtesy of Subject

DANIEL FIENBERG: We’ve all spent a lot of time recently staring at picked-over grocery store shelves, pondering why one kind of peanut butter is out of stock, but the generic version remains, why certain types of water are gone and other types — isn’t it all just water? — linger. 

It’s the same when we look at our TV programming options in these long quarantine days and nights. Who doesn’t know the feeling of having an hour for free viewing and wasting that time looking over the menu bars at Netflix? And often, of course, what jumps out is the show from the big-name creator or headlined by the A-list star, when some of the best stuff out there is the stuff that doesn’t come with that pedigree, that pre-ordained aura of prestige.

Inkoo, have you fallen into the pedigree honey trap lately?

INKOO KANG: I think I saw a Wile E. Coyote cartoon once where poor, dumb Wile E. steps on a string of bear traps he’s laid out for the Roadrunner, and that’s sort of how I feel right now. The show that inspired my observation of this deceptive-pedigree moment was HBO’s Avenue 5, which outwardly seemed to have everything going for it: creator Armando Iannucci (Veep), an intriguing mix of comedy veterans (Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, Josh Gad) and relative unknowns (Rebecca Front, Suzy Nakamura, Lenora Crichlow) and a genius premise of a spaceship cruise gone awry and the various performances of authority and expertise that quickly reveal their hollow core. Wrapping up just as the White House finally began to take the coronavirus seriously, it even got some unexpected relevance with the flailing of its fictional leader in the face of calamity mirroring our own country’s leadership in the midst of a crisis. 

But holy moly, did it underdeliver on nearly every level of execution. Writers and artists are of course prone to missteps, and mistakes might even be necessary to the creative process, because how else are people to learn and evolve? But Avenue 5’s fatal unfunniness, grating characters and curiously uninvolving storylines certainly reminded me that there’s no such thing as a “sure thing.” 

What’s been dampening your quarantine, Dan? 

FIENBERGI gave Avenue 5 a somewhat positive review because I felt like the third and fourth episodes showed improvement. Then the fifth and sixth episodes were generally chaotic and unfunny, but the seventh episode made me laugh hard, so I guess what I’m saying is that I ended up feeling like the first season was a frustration. I think a lot of the class struggle the show was trying to depict was semi-timely, especially if you consider all of the recent real-life examples of stranded and isolated cruise ships and what they reflect about Americans and our love of leisure. What I never got was that next level of satire beyond that. Still, I thought Hugh Laurie was consistently engaging to watch; when they gave Zach Woods enough to do, he was hilariously unhinged; and I think this was the juiciest part Suzy Nakamura has ever been given. But I guess that’s sort of me liking the show exclusively for its pedigree and not what the pedigree was doing.

I actually felt the same way about HBO’s The Outsider, which has been airing with Avenue 5 all spring. Great auspices! Stephen King! Richard Price! Emmy winner Jason Bateman! And I loved watching Cynthia Erivo, once she showed up, and Ben Mendelsohn, once he stopped being exclusively glum. To me, though, the show felt trapped between supernatural and procedural and didn’t live up to that ample potential.

I’d put Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere in that same category of unimpeachably pedigreed letdown. Bestselling book. Reese Witherspoon being terrifyingly Type-A and Kerry Washington exhibiting her trademark quivering rage. But is that enough?

KANGAfter the disastrous second season of Big Little Lies, the truly mixed bag of The Morning Show and now the thoroughly meh adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere, should we revoke Reese’s pedigree card? It might help matters if she didn’t continue playing the same plucky role that we’ve seen her do a hundred times — if she didn’t insist so much on being “cute.” 

To be fair, Witherspoon does expand in Little Fires Everywhere, playing the clueless white lady to Washington’s black struggling artist. (Don’t @ me before watching, please — that’s the show’s characterization, not mine.) As I wrote in my review, Witherspoon and Washington share one exquisite scene together in the second episode, an acting tour-de-force in which the shaky alliance between their characters based on their common womanhood quickly gives away to the race and class differences between them. But the rest of the series, which finds them squaring off on opposing sides of a legal case, fails to live up to that Emmy-reel moment. 

Witherspoon’s gradual move to TV — her last lead film role was in 2017’s Home Again — suggests that movie stars no longer connote quality TV projects anymore. Of course, that’s been the case for a while — remember CBS’s Extant, starring Halle Berry? — but it’s nonetheless been a bit jarring to see such talented, celebrated actors take on such relatively minor and shallow roles to lend them prestige points.

At least Witherspoon and Washington are the stars of Little Fires Everywhere. I’m not entirely over seeing Sally Field and Richard E. Grant trying their damnedest to give AMC’s Dispatches From Elsewhere, about a quartet of strangers playing a live-action, city-wide game that… may not be a game…, the heart and intrigue, respectively, that the show so desperately needs. Or am I a few years behind the curve on this one?

FIENBERGI’m glad you mentioned Dispatches From Elsewhere, a show that fits into this conversation because it feels to me like the brand-name version of my beloved Lodge 49, only with Jason Segel as the slacker whose life turns upside down when he discovers a secret (or secret society) that allows him to finally connect with a world of eccentric strangers and see the webs of connectivity that tie humanity together. Unlike Lodge 49, however, this show feels the need to spell everything out, which reduces a lot of the magic. For all of the big stars in Dispatches, I think Eve Lindley is easily the most interesting performer — and I doubt even she will be enough for me to stick with it.

Sometimes star power just isn’t sufficient to turn a show into something people care about. Look at Hunters on Amazon. Juicy premise, legendary lead actor (the show leans hard on Al Pacino and his Yiddish accent). But once the Auschwitz Memorial condemns you, it’s tough to rebound. I found it to be a provocative piece of Jewsploitation, and there were interesting conversations to be had about it. But I’m not sure people really had those conversations, because Hunters ultimately probably wasn’t quite good enough to be seen as anything more than another show streaming on Amazon.

I feel similarly about Hulu's High Fidelity, which has double IP prestige from Nick Hornby's book and Stephen Frears' film, but never quite nails why this story is relevant for 2020. That’s despite the occasional freshness that comes from Zoe Kravitz's vulnerable and edgy performance.

Now I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve been disappointed by all of this spring’s shows with splashy casts or big-name creators. HBO’s Plot Against America is populated with recognizable actors, and once you put David Simon’s name in front of something, you know it’ll be worth curiosity — but it’s also provocative and infuriating and artfully unpleasant in its own right. FX’s Better Things and AMC’s Better Call Saul have earned their prestigious reps season by season, and their new episodes continue to be among the best things out there. On the other hand, previous Emmy attention and online buzz have not helped the new season of HBO’s glossy Westworld feel any less like the most overqualified, over-intellectualized perfume commercial on TV. 

Have you found satisfaction in any of the spring’s tentpole offerings? Or have you had to seek your joy elsewhere?

KANGTentpoles, not really, which is what this discussion is about! (I’ve yet to dive into The Plot Against America.) Which isn’t to say smaller shows haven’t been good! I adored, for instance, the second season of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend (which felt soulful and heart-stopping in all the ways that the other, much fancier Italian series that Paolo Sorrentino executive-produced, the Jude Law- and John Malkovich-starring The New Pope, didn’t). Apple TV+’s Little America was clearly built as an extension of Master of None’s Emmy-winning “Thanksgiving” episode, and I happily sung its praises. “Thanksgiving” was the breakthrough moment for Lena Waithe, whose new series, Twenties on BET, I’ve found extraordinarily promising. And then there’s HBO’s High Maintenance, the show that proved prestige could be found anywhere (given the anthology series’ “it’s not TV; it’s Vimeo” origins).

Do you think we can really qualify this as a moment of prestige failures, Dan, or does it just seem more like a function of TV’s usual “let’s see which spaghetti sticks on the wall” model? And however you answer, any wild guesses on how any of this might impact the industry as the chances of a significant production lull and possible recession look increasingly likely?

And since those questions are kinda heavy, which unabashedly unprestigious shows are giving you joy right now?

FIENBERG: It’s a scary and uncertain moment for TV, the entertainment industry and, really, everybody, but I almost think there’s an upside to how many of this spring’s best shows might be flying a little under-the-radar at the moment. Sure, people can tune in for Al Pacino, Nazi Hunter or Reese Witherspoon, TV Star — if that’s still a thing that makes us jolly after her third show in less than a year — but eventually when the hype-driven series have exhausted their enjoyability, or when the fancy brand names have been torn off of the shelves, there’s going to be a long period of discovery of word-of-mouth treasures.

So many of the things I’ve been enjoying most this spring are things I have to keep telling people to watch, because it’s tough to immediately convince mass audiences that they want to tune into a docuseries about cheerleaders (Netflix’s Cheer), or a scripted series about possibly homicidal cheerleaders (USA’s Dare Me), but they’re great! Netflix’s Feel Good, about an unlikely lesbian love affair in London, probably won’t make you feel good, with its backdrop of pain and addiction, but it’s moving and frequently funny in a way that calls to mind Catastrophe (a great, twisted Amazon comedy that people might enjoy if they haven’t seen it before). These are special shows, and if you don’t know the names of the people who created or starred in them, hopefully you’ll know them soon.

And don’t let the title similarities between Netflix’s I’m Not Okay With This and Freeform’s Everything’s Gonna Be Okay confuse you, because they’re both worth watching, the latter especially — not just for Aussie star and creator Josh Thomas, but for co-stars Kayla Cromer and Maeve Press as well. That show, with its bittersweet, unexpectedly hilarious story of an entomologist raising the two half-sisters he barely knows might point to a new pedigree for Freeform, which I hear has a military witch drama coming up.

KANGPlease don’t conjure up my memories of Motherland: Fort Salem again! I do hope you’re right in predicting that smaller shows that come without the marquee names — or the accompanying expectations — might get more of a chance while we’re all stuck on the couch. Some of the most pleasant yet eye-opening or brain-challenging TV I hope more people check out during self-quarantine are network stalwarts like NBC’s Superstore and ABC’s Roseanne-less The Conners. In the same category but on cable/streaming are Showtime’s Work in Progress, a lesbian suicide comedy (trust me), and Netflix’s Next in Fashion, a fashion-design competition hosted by Tan France and Alexa Chung. Sourcing designers from all over the world, it provides just the right amount of jet-setting, glamour and faith in human perseverance that we could use right now.

A version of this story appears in the March 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.