You can’t really enjoy “Tiny Beautiful Things,” an eight-part series on Hulu from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and ABC Signature. You can be moved by it, shattered even. It can provoke introspection, prompting you to reexamine old memories and relationships. But there’s not a lot of joy here, despite several funny moments.
Adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s essay collection of the same name, “Tiny Beautiful Things” stars Kathryn Hahn as Claire, a woman who, on the cusp of her 50th birthday, has found no peace but rather a recurring set of frustrations. She’s haunted by the early death of her mom Frankie (Merritt Wever), who didn’t live to be as old as she is now. Besides causing nightmares, this unprocessed trauma messes up Claire’s current relationships with her husband Danny (Quentin Plair), daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford), brother Lucas (Owen Painter), and most importantly herself.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” lives up to its name, offering small moments of the sublime, made more poignant by the brokenness of its characters. Hahn delivers; sometimes, she’s melancholy or bombastic, but always with a thread of sloppiness pulling through. Crawford also gives a strong, effortless performance, embodying the teenage tendency to swing from vulnerable child to righteous adult to curious adolescent.
The show jumps between multiple timelines, most notably between current-day Claire and her late-teen, twentysomething self, played by Sarah Pidgeon. That was when her mother died, and so in addition to the coming-of-age plots, young-adult Claire finds herself experiencing many “lasts” that she didn’t know would be—the last gift her mother would buy her, for example.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a thoughtful exploration of grief and how old wounds carry forward, with particular attention to motherhood. Claire feels guilty about all the times she slighted her mom, like when she returned that last gift, wanting something more expensive. And she struggles with Rae, the two screaming more often than talking. Claire remembers her mother as kind, patient, and calm but can’t share those traits with her teenage daughter. Yes, there is lots of love there. Still, Claire is stuck expressing it as loss waiting to happen—she’s preparing herself and Rae for tragedy, imagining every fight as their last potential conversation and weaponizing the possibility.
Into this troubled mother-daughter echo chamber, “Tiny Beautiful Things” deeply analyzes class, wealth, and poverty. Claire grew up poor in a house her mom built to escape the abuse of her children’s father. Claire is the first in her family to go to college and finds herself to be different—the one with homemade clothes and a mom who attends with her, sharing her scholarship. She tells Frankie many times that she wants more than the relative poverty she grew up in—she wants books, travel, and art. Her mom never seems to take it personally, but looking back, Claire can’t help but feel ashamed of making her mother feel ashamed, which makes her current middle-class status all the more uncomfortable for nearly-50-year-old Claire. She sees her economic success as a way of betraying and making her mother proud.
Likewise, Claire is stuck creatively. An aspiring writer, she got a book deal as a young woman, writing about casual sex (she has a lot of it after her mom dies). But then, she never wrote the novel. So while current-day Claire holds time for writing, she’s essentially given up. She let her dream wither, and she’s unsure why. Was it because of the obstacles that life threw at her or because it was her mother’s dream, too, and something she could no longer pursue after losing her?
That is until an old acquaintance convinces her to take up the local advice column “Dear Sugar.” As the anonymous respondent, Claire pours her heart into her column, offering her experience not as answers but as frames for thinking about love and loss. Though she’s haunted by her mother’s death, she can finally start processing her grief through this writing.
Still, Claire keeps her new preoccupation secret. As her words make the rounds in her community, she feels proud and compelled to answer more of the letters she gets, to give them some wisdom even if she cannot provide comfort. For all her trauma, Claire is rich with insight that she cannot apply to her own life, even if others around her can.
That is not to say she doesn’t progress over the season—she does, learning to see how she’s stood in her own way and stop blaming others. As such, there is more hope for her at the beginning than the end, but a mother wound the size of Claire’s is hard to heal.
May the rest of us have it easier, and never miss the opportunity to cherish our loved ones while they are with us. That is the takeaway from “Tiny Beautiful Things,” not a show to enjoy so much as learn from.
Whole series was screened for review. “Tiny Beautiful Things” will be available on Hulu on April 7.