Showrunner Liz Tigelaar Crafted ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ With an Eye Toward Inclusion

Caroline Framke

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When Liz Tigelaar signed on as showrunner for Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” she knew it was going to be her toughest, most rewarding experience to date.

“It was transformative,” Tigelaar says of the work she did on the series. “To be honest, it’s the first show that I felt as deeply connected to.” That isn’t to denigrate her past credits, which include “The Morning Show,” “Casual” and “Life Unexpected.” The prolific writer and producer speaks fondly about many of her experiences as necessary steppingstones to where she is now, having recently signed an overall deal with ABC Studios and launched a production company.

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But “Little Fires Everywhere” — an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel about divergent families in suburban Ohio struggling to understand each other, starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon as the conflicted matriarchs — combines an almost spooky amount of Tigelaar’s preexisting interests and experiences. “I love dysfunctional family stories, specifically mother and daughter stories,” she says. As a mother and adoptee herself, she also felt a deep and complex connection to the book’s story of an intense custody battle that raises impossibly hard questions about what it means to be a mother or part of a family at all.

So when Hello Sunshine’s Lauren Neustadter proposed she come aboard the project, Tigelaar didn’t hesitate to work with themes she felt could be, despite the show’s late-’90s setting, “timely and resonant.” And while that combination has always been one of Tigelaar’s goals, she acknowledges that it has felt far more urgent since the 2016 presidential election. “That changed me in terms of what I want to write,” she says. “It has to be something that matters, because it matters what we put out into the world.”

In building the show, Tigelaar worked closely with Washington and Witherspoon (her fellow executive producers on the project), and set three priorities for herself. The first was to be able to tell stories about women that, unlike some previous (unnamed) shows she’s worked on, don’t fall into that basic binary. “I wanted to write a show about the truth and complexity of women’s relationships to each other,” she says, “and how what can attract you can repel you.”

The second, and perhaps most pivotal, step for the showrunner was to build a truly inclusive staff of writers that could tackle the material and grant the space to untangle Ng’s intricate examinations of race and class without fear. “Liz Tigelaar is a unicorn who put together a badass, intersectional writers’ room that could really unpack this book,” says Washington. Indeed, Tigelaar, who had previously envisioned leading a room of perhaps four people, ended up with seven writers, including six women, many of color, several of them mothers. “This show would not be what it was without every single person who was in that room,” she insists. “I see them in every line, every choice, every debate.”

And there were plenty of debates in the room, both by design and by virtue of the sensitive subject matter. Tigelaar, who had tasked the writers to read Robin DiAngelo’s book on racism, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” before the writing started, admits to feeling at first like she could “step on a land mine” at any moment, but that taking the risk rather than shying away from it was the only way the show could have been made. “Any time you’re in a writers’ room, you’re revealing a lot about yourself,” Tigelaar says. “And when you’re talking about things that are so sensitive as race, class, motherhood, you’re vulnerable. But my discovery was that it was so great to see something one way and then have someone explain why they see it a completely different way.”

To enable that kind of discourse, Tigelaar doubled down on her third priority for building the show: Make sure everyone involved in the work is having a good time doing it. The optimistic philosophy, a rare approach in Hollywood, is immediately evident in the name of her production company, Best Day Ever, a reminder to her to promote that spirit among her crew. Asked to explain her thinking in further detail, Tigelaar pauses, then smiles. “I’m a person who loves and longs for family,” she explains. “I just want to create a positive environment where people can feel championed to do their best work and empowered to use their own voices in the process.”