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Time has a funny way of slipping in Tiny Beautiful Things, Liz Tigelaar’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s collection of essays. When 49-year-old Clare (Kathryn Hahn) regresses into the bad habits of her youth, she catches a glimpse of her 22-year-old self (Sarah Pidgeon) in a rearview mirror. When her husband, Danny (Quentin Plair), extends an olive branch during a protracted rough patch, she sees him briefly not as the exhausted middle-aged man he is now but as the hopeful 20something (SteVonté Hart) he was at the start of their romance.
It’s not time travel in the DeLorean sense; Tiny Beautiful Things is rooted firmly in the real world, where temporality only moves one way as far as we know. But the switcheroos make for a vivid representation of the series’ specific brand of empathy — one that insists on appreciating its characters not just for who they are now but for all the people they’ve been before, and perhaps still are on some level. With the weight of all that time behind it, the show ultimately packs a much bigger emotional wallop than might otherwise be suggested by either its its seemingly straightforward premise or slim 30-minute episode run times.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Sarah Pidgeon, Quentin Plair, Tanzyn Crawford, Merritt Wever, Owen Painter, Michaela Watkins, Elizabeth Hinkler
Creator: Liz Tigelaar
The present-day narrative unfolds in linear fashion, and seems at first not unlike other recent Hulu half-hours about messy women grappling with past trauma, a la UnPrisoned or Life & Beth. (The 2014 film Wild, also based on Strayed’s life, would actually be the closest comparison.) The Clare we first meet in the pilot is a trainwreck: reckless, volatile and quick to announce it’s not her fault Danny kicked her out of their home after she drained their teenage daughter’s college fund.
Then into that mess drops an unlikely lifeline in the form of “Dear Sugar,” an advice column she’s recruited to take on. Despite the “shitshow” that is her current existence, Clare finds herself flourishing as a writer for the first time in years, dishing out replies that muse on the nature of faith, the impossibility of certainty, the importance of love.
While too much voiceover can feel like a cheat in some literary adaptations, Hahn’s poignant delivery makes the most of Clare’s full-hearted prose, much of it excerpted from Strayed’s actual Dear Sugar columns. The words hold power even before we’ve had a chance to warm to Clare herself, or to click to the show’s combination of gimlet-eyed clarity and unabashed sentiment. Hahn plays Clare with the fearlessness of an actor who knows the material is strong enough that she doesn’t need to beg for love, and her faith is richly rewarded after a few chapters. As the series digs deeper into Clare’s jagged edges, it becomes impossible not to feel for the wounded soul underneath.
Scattered flashbacks reveal the precious and painful memories lying just beneath Clare’s troubled present: the shabby but cozy home, the abusive relationship with a mostly absent father, the close-knit bond with a little brother, Lucas (Owen Painter), and, at the center of it all, the love of a mother, Frankie (Merritt Wever), whose death by cancer at 45 disrupts the very gravity of Clare’s life. In 2023, Clare yells during a fight with her daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford) that if she were to die tomorrow, Rae would never forgive herself for saying such hurtful things. To Rae, it’s a typically overwrought reaction from a mother who’s seemed increasingly unhinged. To us, fresh off a devastating scene of young Clare and Lucas preparing for their mother’s funeral, it reads as a panicked expression of Clare’s deepest regrets.
That Tiny Beautiful Things proves to be a tearjerker is hardly surprising, and the emotions intensify over the course of the eight-part season. If episode two is good for a lump in the throat as Frankie and young Clare discuss their dwindling time together, the finale is capable of provoking full-on ugly cries with Frankie’s inevitable death. Less expected, however, is how much of the series’ feelings are rooted in more mundane moments.
Frankie, in particular, speaks with so much tenderness it almost hurts to listen — and although the series’ framing of her as an almost saintly figure is one of its minor shortcomings, Wever shades her maternal affection with enough hurt and worry to make her feel believably human. On the flip side, Clare and her bestie Amy (Michaela Watkins) share an easy comedic rapport that yields some of the series’ brightest moments. When Clare insists to Amy that she didn’t really cheat on Danny with the Uber driver the night before because they didn’t technically have sex, Amy’s automatic, deadpan, “Okay, great. Then why are you here?” speaks volumes about the well-worn dynamic between them.
True to its name, Tiny Beautiful Things is sensitive to the details. The series has a knack for zeroing in on moments too strange or specific to feel like anything but lived experience. Some are heartbreaking, like the argument Clare and Lucas have with a mortified funeral home assistant forced to explain that they’re legally required to find a pair of underwear for their mother’s body if they want an open casket.
Its appetite for kindness and grace is even more expansive, though, than its stomach for pain. In the premiere, before Clare becomes Sugar herself, she’s moved to respond to the old Sugar’s post about a recent loss. “I hope in your sister’s death you’ll be able to do something that I haven’t. Create something of her life. Make it beautiful,” she writes. “And then, please, tell me how you did it.” But Sugar doesn’t need to. The rest of Tiny Beautiful Things is Clare figuring out how to do it for herself, one bittersweet step at a time.
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