The new HBO limited series “Big Little Lies,” which boasts a starry cast headed by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern, is an unlikely, at times brilliant, blending of two TV conventions.
On one hand, “Big Little Lies,” adapted by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel, revels in escapist images of what life is like for the white, affluent set, as if “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” moved to the seaside community of Monterey, California.
Beautiful characters move about their gorgeous homes, pausing occasionally to gaze thoughtfully out the window at spectacular views.
But while director Jean-Marc Vallee and his team are lulling us into sensual submission with glimmering images of rocky cliffs, smashing waves, virgin beaches and that intoxicating coastal light, something else is going on.
After years of premium cable networks giving us gritty tales of flawed male characters, “Big Little Lies” takes the bold, subversive step of immersing viewers into the lives of flawed female characters.
And these women aren’t Tony Soprano or Walter White, using violence as a means of taking care of business. No, the violence in “Big Little Lies” is more subtle, and more devastating. The women in “Big Little Lies” are trying to navigate emotional minefields, and if they put a foot wrong, their lives can explode.
The women in “Big Little Lies” live in and perpetuate a system that demands they look good, for the sake of their children, their family and their standing in the community. As wives and mothers, the pressure to have it all is unrelenting, and the jockeying for position is exhausting.
And the stakes get even higher when there’s a murder.
It would be easy — and wrong, in my view — to dismiss “Big Little Lies” as a gals-will-be-gals melodrama, about catty women competing with each other until somebody winds up dead.
Instead, “Big Little Lies” works both as a tantalizing mystery and a social satire. In the first four episodes HBO made available to critics, we don’t yet know who’s dead — though there are characters we’d eagerly nominate for that fate.
Flash-forward scenes feature police interviewing locals, who are gossipy and judgmental in their observations. Funny and awful, these scenes recall “To Die For,” the underrated Gus Van Sant movie that gave Kidman one of her best early roles as a woman who turned to murder when she wasn’t getting the life she thought she deserved.
In “Big Little Lies,” the story revolves around a small group of women whose children become both weapons and victims. Witherspoon — who reunites with her “Wild” director, Vallee, and costar, Dern — has never been better as Madeline, the well-established Monterey wife and mother.
Seemingly happily married to her second husband (Adam Scott), Madeline’s superficial perfection, and busybody interest in everyone else’s affairs, barely conceal her anger over her ex-husband’s remarriage to a younger, sexy yoga teacher (Zoe Kravitz.) And, it turns out, Madeline is keeping secrets of her own.
Madeline’s old and new friends also have things to hide. Celeste (Kidman) has the life everyone in Monterey envies — and resents. A lawyer who gave up her career to live in luxury with her younger husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and raise their twin sons, Celeste appears to have a passionate marriage, adorable children and everything money can buy. But why does a cloud come over her face when she thinks nobody’s looking?
The odd woman out is Jane (Woodley), who moves to Monterey with her young son to get away from a deeply traumatic episode. In their modest little house, Jane and Ziggy (Iain Armitage) try to start over, but trouble finds them when Ziggy is accused of assaulting a school classmate, who happens to be the excessively doted-on daughter of Renata (Dern), a high-tech exec who leans in on everything, from her job to her daughter’s birthday party.
The entire cast is at the top of their game, with Kidman especially affecting as the strong, but conflicted Celeste.
The characters in “Big Little Lies” may suffer, but viewers don’t. Thanks to the stellar work of Vallee, Kelley and the top-flight cast, “Big Little Lies,” like its characters, delivers a high-sheen surface. But, unlike some self-consciously glum prestige TV series, “Big Little Lies” isn’t afraid to be entertaining, mixing intimate, dark drama with sly social commentary. It’s one of the best shows of this still-young year.
“Big Little Lies” debuts on HBO at 9 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 19.