Expanding the Witherspoon Television Universe
“Big Little Lies.” “Little Fires Everywhere.” “Tiny Beautiful Things.” If you want your book optioned for television by Reese Witherspoon, you might want to think small.
As Witherspoon has, relatively quietly, become a powerful force in film and TV production, the series she has been involved with have had more in common than a tendency toward preciousness in their titles. Fulfilling a goal she set when she went into the production business, nearly all those shows — in a list that also includes “Truth Be Told,” “From Scratch” and “Daisy Jones & the Six” — have been adapted from novels or memoirs written by women and focus tightly on female protagonists. (The exception is “The Morning Show,” based on a nonfiction book by Brian Stelter.)
That commitment continues in her two latest projects as an executive producer. “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which debuted last week on Hulu, is based on a 2012 collection of essays by Cheryl Strayed, the writer Witherspoon portrayed in the film “Wild,” one of her triumphs as both an actor and executive. “The Last Thing He Told Me,” premiering Friday on Apple TV+, was adapted from a best-selling novel by Laura Dave.
Of course, you can’t draw a straight line from Witherspoon to the shows she backs (even when she acts in them, as in “The Morning Show” and “Little Fires Everywhere”). She, along with her producing partners, chooses or signs off on the material, and the rest is up to other people. The series do tend to have a well-made, tasteful polish that may reflect Witherspoon’s standards and sensibility. But the melodramatic excesses of “Big Little Lies” were the province of that show’s creator, David E. Kelley, while the intelligence and impact of “The Morning Show” at its best came from the showrunner Kerry Ehrin and a powerful performance by Steve Carell.
The two current series are paradigmatic of the Witherspoon touch: Both are focused on women dealing with dire circumstances, and both are skillfully assembled in a way that will satisfy their target audiences — if to very different dramatic ends and with very different degrees of success.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” takes the autobiographical content of advice columns Strayed wrote for the online magazine The Rumpus and fictionalizes it in what is meant to be both a comic and a wrenching story about mothers and daughters. Kathryn Hahn plays the Strayed character, Clare, a middle-aged stalled writer working as a health care administrator, whose adult life — along with that of her brother, Lucas (Owen Painter) — has been blighted by the premature death of their mother (Merritt Wever). Clare is estranged from the world, in couples therapy with her husband (Quentin Plair) and at war with her teenage daughter (Tanzyn Crawford).
As developed by the TV veteran Liz Tigelaar, who worked with Witherspoon on “The Morning Show” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” the eight half-hour episodes of “Tiny Beautiful Things” move back and forth between the two big pressure points in Clare’s life: the present, in which the accidental advice-column gig rekindles her fire for writing, and her high school and college years, when she lives on the margins with her underemployed single mother. It does some magical-realist morphing between the two, so that the older Clare can literally observe her younger self. (Sarah Pidgeon plays the younger Clare.)
Those mechanics are artfully handled. But Tigelaar, whose roots stretch back to network shows like “Melrose Place” and “Brothers and Sisters,” has trouble finding a working balance between the show’s practiced sitcom rhythms and the pat sentimentality of the material, which gets pushed to eye-rolling extremes.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is one of those shows whose appeal lies in reflecting back to viewers their own problems and attitudes (or the ones they imagine they have); it describes emotions rather than developing them, and elevates platitude to a dramatic principle. Hahn, a skilled comic actress, is especially poorly served by the show’s jumbling of tones — when Clare acts out, the soap-opera extremity of the writing and staging feels out of sync, and it’s hard to sympathize with the character the way we’re clearly supposed to. (It’s also unfortunate for Hahn that she doesn’t get to play scenes with Wever, whose portrayal of Clare’s rock-solid mother is the best thing in the show.)
The Apple TV+ mini-series “The Last Thing He Told Me” is, from some points of view, a lesser project than “Tiny Beautiful Things.” It’s a mother-daughter story, but it’s one told in the form of a crime thriller — a wife and her discontented stepdaughter are forced to work together as amateur private eyes when the husband-father disappears amid a corporate scandal.
The suspicion of genre superficiality is enhanced by high-gloss scenery and aspirational lifestyle signaling. The wood artist Hannah (Jennifer Garner), her tech-whiz husband, Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and their querulous teenager, Bailey (Angourie Rice), live on a houseboat in Sausalito — why not? — and shooting locations include the marketplace at the San Francisco Ferry Building (Acme Bread, natch) and the playing surface at the Giants’ beautiful Oracle Park.
The series stumbles around for a few episodes while it establishes the Hitchcockian ambience (circa “Vertigo” and “The Birds”) and puts in place the clues to Owen’s past that will pay off in later revelations. (The seven episodes run from just 37 to 45 minutes, and the pace is generally brisk.) But it quickly gels into a better-than-average whodunit and a superior family drama, one whose denouement hits you with surprising force.
Much of the credit must to go to Dave, who adapted her own book, and to Josh Singer, who created the show with her. Both the mystery plot and the relationship between Hannah and Bailey develop organically, with dramatic restraint and emotional credibility. The story hits very few false notes as Hannah finds a resourcefulness she hadn’t needed to deploy while Owen was there, and as other people in her life — including, eventually, Bailey — rally around her.
(One thing that rings false is the portrayal of Hannah’s best friend, a reporter played by Aisha Tyler, who ignores the big business story that falls in her lap so that she can chase down leads for Hannah. It’s an odd glitch given that Singer wrote the celebrated newspaper movies “Spotlight” and “The Post.”)
But “The Last Thing He Told Me” owes its success mostly to Garner, a wonderfully natural and instinctive actress who gets to play a character with an echo of her breakout role in the spy thriller show “Alias”; across the series, we see Hannah getting in touch with her inner Sydney Bristow. And Rice, the Australian actress who plays Betty Brant in the current “Spider-Man” movies, matches up well with Garner — the tension between stepmother and stepdaughter is palpable but never overplayed. In the Witherspoon television universe, Garner and Rice put “The Last Thing He Told Me” near the top of the ranking.