On its face, Big Little Lies is a one-dimensional whodunit murder mystery where something goes awry at a fundraiser for a school for children and their WASPY, entitled, immensely wealthy parents who apparently have nothing better to do but gossip behind one another’s backs.
However, once you look past the vapid veneer, Big Little Lies is a uniquely engrossing story that touches on some very real issues ranging from the intricacies of female friendships, parental peril, and matrimonial melancholy all the way to psychological manipulation, sexual assault, and domestic abuse.
Based on the book by Liane Moriarity, the action is transposed from the original Australian small town, to the picture perfect Californian coastal community of Monterey. Neighbours are divided between those who earn and income over 150K and those who do not. The public schooling system is also out of this world, which is why many have chosen to make it their home.
Newcomer Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) chooses to move to the small community specifically to take advantage of the education, and is taken under the wing of one Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) — a firecracker of a woman with a capital B bossy attitude and a penchant for holding grudges expertly executed by Witherspoon. The two meet on the first day of school and when Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is accused town hall style of hurting another student who happens to be the daughter of Renata Klein (Laura Dern). Battle lines are drawn. Ziggy denies the allegation that he hurt the little girl and bulldoggish Renata makes a stand to protect her daughter. The abuse and bullying continues, yet we don’t know who is the culprit. With the allegations of violence, Jane is transposed back to the conception of her son, which were under less than “love making” circumstances.
More interesting than what I will admit is incredibly entertaining feud between the women is the undercurrent of violence that ripples through out the entire series. Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) is the last member of the sister triad of friends. A talented lawyer and ethereally beautiful presence, she is married to Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) a devilishly handsome man who is seemingly the perfect husband and father. However, behind the scenes we see his insecurities manifest in an inability to separate passion and violence. The dynamic between the two is electrifyingly compelling with sexual power dramatically intertwined with physical violence. One of the most remarkable scenes is when the two decide to go to couple’s counselling with Robin Weigert giving an exceptional restrained performance as their psychiatrist. The scenes are incredibly tense with profound stillness. Be careful about how much you turn up the volume during these more quite moments — the show is prone to jarring sound cues.
The weakest element of the show is the all-too-cliché device of the montage of peripheral characters being interviewed by the detectives fresh on the scene of said murder. The audience is taunted with minute details about the unfortunate event, but we are not privy to the names of either the victim or the perpetrator and rather treated to a, “Well the story really starts six weeks ago…” treatment. They offer snide remarks, pithy one liners, and vicious observations completely detract from the more nuanced and fascinating elements of the show. One of the more cringeworthy lines that comes to mind is from one doughy resident, “Women are chemically incapable of forgiveness.” UGH.
It’s almost as though these peanut gallery folks were plucked from an entirely different show althoughter. One has to wonder if series writer David E. Kelley wasn’t quite ready to make the transition from primetime to HBO and decided to use the townsfolk as a narrative crutch. Honestly, the show could have done with cutting their scenes out all together. Thankfully, there are some solid writing moments and whatever shortcomings are made up by Jean-Marc Vallée’s truly exquisite direction.
Big Little Lies is a beautifully shot, thought-provoking drama that contains knock out performances from some talented powerhouses. Even if the suspense about what the hell actually happened at the fundraiser isn’t enough to hold your attention throughout, the individual storylines and intimate scenes will keep you coming back for more.