Kathryn Hahn Shines as Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things: TV Review

Kathryn Hahn has a type. Since starring in Joey Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight” in 2013, the actor has spent a decade delivering nuanced portrayals of messy, horny, hilarious women who bluster their way through middle age. It is a miracle of modern television that Hahn’s hyper-specific specialty has supported three separate series: “I Love Dick,” also helmed by Soloway; “Mrs. Fletcher”; and now, “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

Created by Liz Tigelaar of “Little Fires Everywhere,” the Hulu half-hour casts Hahn as a fictional version of Cheryl Strayed, the memoirist and advice columnist who rose to fame by blending both forms into one. The show is adapted from the 2012 book of the same name, a collection of essays Strayed first published under the moniker Dear Sugar. Strayed met her readers’ deeply personal disclosures with some of her own, sharing her experience with addiction, grief and abuse in long missives more meandering and literary than straightforward tips. As a series, “Tiny Beautiful Things” aggregates and expands those experiences, then attributes them to Hahn’s Strayed surrogate, Clare Pierce.

Hahn is not the first high-profile actor to depict Strayed on screen. Back in 2014, Reese Witherspoon starred in “Wild,” based on the author’s book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; eight years later, Witherspoon executive produced “Tiny Beautiful Things” through her banner Hello Sunshine. (Laura Dern, who also appeared in “Wild” as Strayed’s late mother, is another EP.) But while her predecessor is still involved, Hahn puts her own stamp on this material. As a performer, Witherspoon is best known for her Type-A perfectionists, and she projects that air even when playing less hyper-competent characters. Hahn, on the other hand, infuses Clare with her earthy, libidinous energy — an ideal match for a woman we need to find as compelling as she is chaotic.

The central irony of “Tiny Beautiful Things” is that Clare starts advising others how to live their lives just as hers is spiraling out of control. Granted, Clare has never truly enjoyed a sense of stability. She was raised poor by a single mother, got married (and divorced) too young, lost her only parent in her twenties, did heroin to cope — and had an unplanned pregnancy that put her writing career on a back burner. We see these milestones play out in nonlinear flashbacks that hopscotch through Clare’s past, featuring Sarah Pidgeon as her younger self, and the always-great Merritt Wever as her mother Frankie. In the present, now nearing 50, Clare is in hot water at work; her second marriage is on the rocks; and that unplanned pregnancy is now a teenager who hates her, as teenagers do. Amid all the upheaval, Clare can barely recognize the opportunity she’s handed when a friend asks her to take over his anonymous blog. He calls it Dear Sugar.

Hahn is a natural comedian, and “Tiny Beautiful Things” adjusts its tone to her strengths. Clare sputters and stammers her way through couples therapy sessions. She screams at her daughter’s awful friend, then gets humiliated as a result. (“There’s a TikTok.” “Of course there is.”) She reminds her best friend Amy (Michaela Watkins), a bartender, that “you once worked a double with a plum up your vagina” by way of a peptalk. The events of “Tiny Beautiful Things” could easily make for a ponderous drama. But at eight half-hour episodes, the show is both lighter and more nimble than its synopsis might suggest.

The downside of this approach is that the series’ source material can feel out of place in its own adaptation. Most episodes culminate with Hahn reading real-life Strayed columns in voiceover. On the page, the writing is obviously effective; after all, it’s the reason show even exists. But in contrast to the rest of the series, Clare-slash-Cheryl’s exhortations on the power of love or radical acceptance or the importance of self-determination have a wistful earnestness that borders on the saccharine. In a sense, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a victim of its own success, so thoroughly establishing its own feel that its unaltered inspiration sticks out.

The flashbacks, too, have to fight an uphill battle. Jean-Marc Vallée, the late director of “Wild,” traded in brief, artful cuts that recreated the intrusion of traumatic memory, which made him well-suited to Strayed-style memoir. (Vallée, Witherspoon and Dern reunited for “Big Little Lies,” which shares more with “Tiny Beautiful Things” than a tripartite, size-based title.) The timelines of “Tiny Beautiful Things” are not as smoothly integrated, and suffer from the absence of the performance the show is otherwise shaped around. Wever is always worthwhile, and the context for the protagonist’s struggles is useful. But an episode set entirely in the present goes down smoothly, and the absence of Clare’s younger self isn’t really felt.

Hahn, however, holds up. Her style may be familiar by now, but it also hasn’t worn thin. She has a knack for taking cerebral, internal conflicts, like honing a creative voice — another shared theme with “I Love Dick” and “Mrs. Fletcher” — and rooting them in the physical. Clare Pierce has as much of her as Cheryl Strayed, and “Tiny Beautiful Things” is all the better for it.

All eight episodes of “Tiny Beautiful Things” premiere on Hulu on April 7.

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