Women are inherently flawed and messy, but on TV most female characters have only been allowed to be those deeply human things in recent years. As storytelling has progressed, particularly on the small screen, many viewers have embraced the chaos that comes along with being alive, regardless of gender. Life is tumultuous, as these shows have acknowledged, and along with that comes bad behavior, mistakes and turbulent emotions. Tiny Beautiful Things is a show about one of these women, a character so at odds with the world that she is, at times, uncomfortable to watch.
Created by long-time producer Liz Tigelaar, the limited series is based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 collection of essays, which were compiled from her anonymous “Dear Sugar” advice column. The column, published on The Rumpus, saw Strayed — author of the memoir Wild, which became the 2014 Reese Witherspoon film — responding to readers’ questions with unflinching honesty, often revealing experiences from her own life in doing so. It was previously adapted as a play, starring Nia Vardalos, but Hulu’s series (produced by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine) dramatizes the premise and makes Strayed a fictional character named Clare.
Clare, a writer on the outs with her husband and daughter after a financial mishap, is perfectly cast. There is perhaps no better actress than Kathryn Hahn to take on the raw, unfiltered messiness of Clare’s life. And it’s fucking messy. As the series opens, Clare has been kicked out of her house by her husband Danny (Quentin Plair). He thinks she’s crashing on a friend’s sofa, but really she’s sneaking into the nursing home where she works and sleeping in an extra bed next to one of the elderly residents. Her teenage daughter Rae (Tanzyn Crawford) is not handling the situation well. In flashbacks, we see a past version of Clare (Sarah Pidgeon) with her mother (Merritt Wever), who died when she was young. In both timelines, Clare is depressed, and uses sex and drugs to ease her pain.
Initially, it’s easy to dismiss Clare as yet another messed-up woman who refuses to get her shit together. She’s a bad mom, a bad wife and a bad employee. But is it that simple? A friend approaches Clare, who is at the end of her rapidly fraying rope, with an offer: He wants her to take over his advice column, “Dear Sugar.” She could write it, he says, despite her trepidation. Like Strayed, Clare ultimately realizes that you can give advice even if your own life isn’t neat and tidy. In fact, your advice might be all the more relatable. In the final moments of the first episode, as Clare recounts an anguished moment from her past, Tiny Beautiful Things reveals itself. That initial discomfort of watching Clare screw up again and again dissipates. As the later episodes underscore, this is a show about that glimpse of sunlight that comes through the darkness when you need it most.
Each episode shifts between the past and present, with the former timeline relating in some way to what’s happening to Clare now. Pidgeon is a great and very believable younger version of Hahn, and it’s too bad there wasn’t more space for Wever in the narrative. Over and over, Clare makes missteps. She doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes, and worse, she doesn’t always seem to care. We can see that she means well, especially where her daughter is concerned, but there are moments when you want to scream at her through the screen. Tiny Beautiful Things is not a comforting show, nor is it particularly relaxing to watch. Instead, it recalls a voiceover from an early season of Grey’s Anatomy when Meredith intones, “Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.” When Clare stops and reflects in her column, offering advice she’s not always able to take herself, there’s a rush of relief. Even in the midst of self-imposed disorder, we might be okay.