Hulu brings Cheryl Strayed’s old advice column to life in this refreshing, if messy, adaptation.
If you belonged to a certain group of very online Millennials around 2011, then the chances that a Dear Sugar letter changed your life or permanently lodged itself in your brain are high. I know it’s certainly true for me. That means I’m carrying a certain degree of baggage to Hulu’s newest series, Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the book of the same name–a collection of Dear Sugar’s best advice columns)–and Sugar herself, Cheryl Strayed, who stepped forward as the columnist in 2012.
Strayed’s other book, Wild, adapted by Reese Witherspoon into the Academy Award-nominated film in 2014, is her popular memoir about her mother’s death and her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. That may lead you to wonder if the show will simply be a retread of the film. The answer, interestingly, is both yes and no.
The main difference is this adaptation is not actually about Strayed. Instead, Kathryn Hahn plays Clare Pierce. At first, her background and traumas pull inspiration from Strayed’s life. However, at some point, their lives veered in a wildly different direction. The Strayed that wrote Dear Sugar was many years on the other side of the painful mess that had been her life. Clare, however, is right in the middle of it. That’s where we meet her.
Clare is a walking disaster. She’s drunk, hated by her daughter, and crashing on an empty bed at her day job in a nursing home after being kicked out by her husband. Like Strayed, she grew up poor in the country and lost her mother to cancer when she was very young. But Clare doesn’t seem to have ever recovered from the loss. It isn’t until a friend begs her to take over the advice column he’s been writing in secret, Dear Sugar, that Clare begins to find some of her purpose again.
[W]orth the watch, even with its missteps.
Though Hahn’s gained a reputation in recent years for being the darling fan favorite wherever she pops up, this isn’t that kind of role. Instead, thanks to her talents, Hahn breathes life into a genuinely unlikeable woman. Clare is selfish, if not almost entirely self-obsessed. She’s slow to learn lessons. She rarely seems to make the right decision. And yet Hahn still manages to bring some empathy to her.
Where Tiny Beautiful Things struggles is structure. Though showrunner Liz Tigelaar is no stranger to juggling multiple plotlines or timelines thanks to her previous work on Little Fires Everywhere, something is missing here. Too often, it feels like flashbacks are just slightly out of place. That leads to scenes that should be emotionally fraught instead falling flat. The context is there, but, frustratingly, it repeatedly feels like it’s coming half an episode too late.
The series’ themes are as heavy as any of the Dear Sugar letters peppered throughout the show. What made the column so unique was how it felt radically different from other popular advice columns of the time. Where Dear Abby might spare you a few lines in the paper, Sugar would write hundreds of words in response. She’d share the deepest parts of herself so you’d know you really and truly weren’t alone. Merely look to “Write Like a Motherfucker” or “The Truth That Lives There” to get the picture. And probably weep a bit, too.
Tiny Beautiful Things strives to stay true to that feeling. It wants to capture how the column made it so clear that all the mistakes in Sugar’s life were exactly what gave her the right to give advice. Depicting Clare finding the words for others, despite being too scared to take her own advice, is one of the series’ most daring aspects. We don’t need Clare to be perfect. Tiny Beautiful Things lets her share while she’s learning. That’s what makes it worth the watch, even with its missteps.
Tiny Beautiful Things starts to piece its life together on Hulu April 7.