There are a few things on the surface of Big Little Lies that may not be very inviting for the weary TV viewer. It’s a mystery series, but one focusing on rich white people in an impossibly beautiful setting. It’s a lightly satirical, and from afar looks like some kind of Desperate Housewives meets Eat, Pray, Love hybrid. But it’s also a miniseries with an A-list cast (collecting more movie stars than almost any other TV series has to date), and a compelling subplot that revolves around desire, violence, and consent from a myriad of different angles. And its exploration of the eventual crime is one that is visually sumptuous and elusive in a way that is engrossing, not willfully obtuse.
Big Little Lies was adapted by TV veteran David E. Kelly from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, which focuses on a handful of Monterey Bay women and their families, as they navigate their personal lives amid what becomes an increasingly hostile and passive aggressive community atmosphere — one that ends up with a murder. Though the murder kicks off the series, it takes place in the future, where even the victim remains a mystery. It’s a strange approach in some ways, but one that amps up the tension as we learn more about the characters, their triggers, and their resentments.
At the center of it all is Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), a charmingly pushy and anxiety-ridden mother of two who is remarried to a kind-hearted man (Adam Scott), but is still wrapped up in hating her ex-husband (James Tupper) and his much younger wife (Zoe Kravitz). She quickly befriends a new mother in town, Jane (Shailene Woodley), whose son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is in her daughter’s class, and defends her when Ziggy becomes the prime suspect in choking a fellow classmate on the first day of school.
The victim of that assault, whoever perpetrated it, is the daughter of a high-powered “career-mommy” (as Madeline calls her), Renata Klein (Laura Dern), who is not satisfied to let the matter rest, and immediately begins ostracizing Ziggy and Jane. Madeline, drawing a line in the sand, recruits her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) in fighting back against Renata, who also wants to shut down Madeline’s theater production of Avenue Q.
While this drives the plot of Big Little Lies, the show is at its best during the moments in between. The astoundingly gorgeous beach setting (the series is directed in full by Wild’s Jean-Marc Vallée) creates a dream-like world that is — as these sorts of stories often are — hiding a nightmarish underbelly. For Madeline it’s about her own insecurities and not being fulfilled just as a mother, as well as the fear of her daughters growing away from her (and her obsession over her ex and his new life). But for Jane and Celeste, it’s far more sinister. We slowly learn why Ziggy’s father isn’t in the picture, and why Jane worries that Ziggy could be the schoolyard bully, bringing up questions of nature versus nurture. But alongside this, we see Celeste dealing with a controlling, violent husband (Alexander Skarsgard) in a way that is tied deeply to their sex life. Issues of consent burble underneath Big Little Lies’ story, never far from breaking through the surface (which is what, one suspects, will cause the murder).
The fantastic cast are also each playing roles that show them off at their best and most adept — Witherspoon is so excellent when she’s playing a perfectionist, Kidman when she’s a cooly elusive beauty, and Woodley when she’s fighting for something. The three women don’t share a huge amount of screen time together (despite their wonderfully easy friendships) and their stories can often feel like three distinct tales, but it works surprisingly well. Each story is equally compelling in very different ways, and makes Big Little Lies succeed at being satire about the privileged that doesn’t end up cartoonish like Desperate Housewives, even if that’s how most of the women of the series might define themselves.
What doesn’t work as well are elements of the future case that are peppered in, particularly the overly gossipy and poetically articulate townsfolk. This is where the miniseries takes a turn too far into being over-written and catty, as Madeline, Jane, and Celeste and their families are treated like celebrities instead of fellow parents, something that’s not shown to be the case anywhere other than in the interrogation rooms. It’s a misstep, and one that doesn’t add anything to the story since everything that is said in these scenes is shown, in much greater and more sumptuous detail, in the women’s own scenes. The character of Renata, as well, is one who is pained as a villain, with Dern only being given a few short scenes to make a valid case for this complicated woman (yet Dern is so good she makes it happen).
Big Little Lies is an easy and engrossing binge watch (at least, having binged the first four out of an eventual seven episodes), so it’s a little disappointing that it will only be available to watch weekly. And yet, there is something to be said for slowing down and appreciating the world that Kelly and especially Vallée create through realistic family dynamics, emotional flashbacks, and distant reveries, all of which are anchored by the fantastic performances.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Settle in for this one.
Big Little Lies premieres Sunday, February 19th on HBO