Tiny Beautiful Things begins with one of the biggest life dilemmas of our modern age: Is it okay to eat Chick-fil-A? Or should we all avoid the fast food restaurant like the plague?
A drunken Clare Pierce (Kathryn Hahn) debates this with herself, as she rides in the passenger seat of her husband Danny’s (Quentin Plair) car. She’s already chomping on a greasy fried chicken sandwich, lathered in honey mustard sauce and paired with crisp waffle fries, so perhaps the decision has already been made. But Clare is upset with herself for ordering from such a rancid corporation, grappling with her embarrassment as she shoves more bites of juicy chicken into her mouth.
“They are horrible to gay people—queer people, sorry. But it isn’t just their homophobia,” Clare says, then showing off piles of trash to Danny. “Look, it’s all this crap that’s going to floating on the planet forever, wedged into the nostril of some innocent turtle.”
Clare takes another bite. “But the butter and the pickles … fuck!”
Though she’s right that Chick-fil-A is a harrowing business run by the allegedly racist, homophobic Dan Cathy—I, myself, never opt to dine there, though I’ll go along with others if they insist—it’s hard to deny how delectable those damn sandwiches and fries are. Suggest Popeyes, McDonald’s, and KFC all you want; nothing will top the unfettered deliciousness of a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. Though it goes much deeper than deliberating on fast food chains—like divorce, death, and life’s many woes—Tiny Beautiful Things treats each dilemma with the same earnestness, never rendering a single impasse as something black and white.
Tiny Beautiful Things, all eight episodes of which will debut on Hulu April 7, is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s beloved non-fiction book of the same name. While the book collects snippets of advice Strayed wrote between 2010-2012 as the columnist “Sugar,” published in the Rumpus’ advice column, the TV series takes from Strayed’s life and the book’s 2016 play adaptation starring Nia Vardalos as well. While the series spotlights some of the very best advice columns from Dear Sugar—life-changing essays like “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us” and, naturally, the original “Tiny Beautiful Things”—it manages to build a stronger story by focusing on Strayed herself, from the death of her mother in flashbacks to her becoming Sugar in the present day.
In the present-day storyline, Clare struggles with her home and work life. On the homefront, she’s got issues with Danny and her daughter Frankie (Tanzyn Crawford), named after Clare’s mother (Merritt Wever)—though Clare’s daughter now prefers going by “Rae” because it’s a slight jab at her mother. Rae is barely speaking to Clare, furious that her mother went ahead and spent her entire college savings fund on restoring her own childhood home, in honor of the late Frankie Pierce—and because Clare’s brother Lucas (Owen Painter) is strapped for cash and needs somewhere to sleep.
That same home is seen in flashbacks of younger Clare (Sarah Pidgeon) and Lucas (Oliver Spenceman), in which the siblings cope with their education, relationships, and the unexpected death of their mother due to cancer. Though the “Dear Sugar” scenes with older Clare, in which she pens her advice columns, feel like a heartful tie-in to Strayed’s book, these flashback sequences are the real appeal of Tiny Beautiful Things. Here, Clare learns all the lessons that she shares with her readers later in life. We watch as she decides between becoming a mother and pursuing a life on the road (leading into a story based upon “The Ghost Ship”) and making the call to leave her ex-husband (which provided inspiration for “The Truth That Lives There”). The issues Clare faces aren’t always easily tied up into quippy advice columns, which is why it’s nice to see them play out with more context—here’s why we should be listening to Sugar; here’s the history behind the advice that she sagely doles out to readers.
Kathryn Hahn can do no wrong, and as Clare, she once again displays a breadth of tenderness, wit, and humanity. But don’t be fooled—she’s not the only lead star of the series. The Wilds star Sarah Pidgeon, starring as the younger version of Clare, goes above and beyond in the flashback sequences of the show. There were times where Pidgeon’s line-readings were so close to Hahn’s that, had I closed my eyes and listened to the young actress speak, I would’ve thought it was Hahn herself delivering the line. From the flashbacks to current day, Clare’s storyline seems like it must have been emotionally draining for her performers—but somehow, Pidgeon and Hahn not only bring such life to the character, but they also find a way to completely match each other’s takes on Clare as they do so.
“When it comes to advice columns, perhaps we don’t need a “girlboss” telling us how to become the portrait of womanhood. ”
As both Clares clash with the pitfalls of life, they don’t always handle things well. In fact, they often end up in the worst-case scenario, whether marrying the wrong husband or going viral on TikTok for shouting about threesomes. Clare is a “girlfailure” (the opposite of a girlboss), with her story resembling that of Fleabag, if Fleabag were forced to reckon with being a mother. But when it comes to advice columns, perhaps we don’t need a “girlboss” telling us how to become the portrait of womanhood. No, we need someone like Clare, who will see us into the gloomy black holes of life and pull us out too. Clare is the perfect lead for the adaptation of Strayed’s self-help classic.
Even as Tiny Beautiful Things is a very loose adaptation of its source material—there’s really no tried-and-true method of spinning advice columns into television—Clare keeps the miniseries feeling both familiar and engrossing. It uses Strayed’s book to center its story more than just recreate it, weaving new plots around the memorable “Dear Sugar” writings. But if you’re looking for a more straightforward adaptation of one of your favorite books, you’re not going to find it here.
Still, you’ll find bits and bobs of the original Tiny Beautiful Things in Clare’s monologues, the moments Strayed only briefly mentions in the book but fully experiences here, and the overarching tone. Although Tiny Beautiful Things does not follow the structure of the book at all, it is an honest adaptation of its spirit, making this a meaningful treat for fans of the book and newcomers alike.
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