A series premiere, much like the first chapter of a mystery novel, is burdened with the task of luring the audience in so that they may return for another episode. With its idyllic scenery, well-crafted characters, an incredible cast, and hints of a heinous crime, Big Little Lies has this job down pat. The HBO series is being screened on India on Star World Premiere HD.
Based on a 2014 book by Australian author Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies is an ominous tale that conceals as much as it reveals. While the original novel was set in Australia, the show takes the drama to Monterey in California, a perfectly posh and picturesque place made up of flawless families and beautiful houses.
The seven-part series has been created and written by Ally McBeal’s David E Kelley, directed by Oscar-nominated Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) and steered by its producers, who include Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. The two actresses are part of a cast that includes Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz.
Witherspoon is perfect as Madeline Martha Mackenzie, a grown-up version of her Election character Tracy Flick. Madeline is a helicopter mom, extremely invested in the lives of her children. She has a beautiful house, a supportive husband, and two daughters (a disinterested teenager, and a way-too-wise for her years first grader). Her kids are her universe, and as they grow up she finds her grasp on her world weakening. So she fills her days (but never more than 20 hours a week!) at the theatre. She also has an ex-husband, whom she hates almost as much as she detests his young yoga instructor wife, Bonnie (Kravitz).
Madeline’s best friend Celeste Wright (Kidman) is a beautiful ex-lawyer, who lives a beautiful life in a beautiful house, with her beautiful twin boys. She carefully selects the perfect pictures of her sons to share on the internet, keeping the enviable image of her flawless life intact for the world outside. But all is not right in the Wright paradise – her relationship with her younger husband, Perry (Skarsgard), is volatile and abusive.
And then there is Jane (Woodley), a single mom, described as a “dusty old Prius parked outside of a Barney’s”. Jane moves to Monterey with her son, Ziggy, in an attempt to escape a seemingly troubled past.
Madeline takes Jane under her wing on day one. When harmless little Ziggy is accused of assaulting his new classmate, Amabella, Jane finds an ally in Madeline.
Laura Dern is Renata, Amabella’s mother and Madeline’s enemy on the playground. She balances board meetings and school-drops offs, but is clearly insecure about what the stay-at-home mothers think about her. Dern is wonderfully malicious, and very angry.
The voiceover that runs through the series confirms that this incident in school, and the unlikely friendship between Madeline, Celeste and Jane, set events in motion.
The event in question here is a murder. The series plays out in flashback, in which the police are investigating a murder that took place on the night of a fundraiser. We know that the pelvis is fractured and there is an injury at the back of the skull. What we don’t know is who is dead and why they were killed. But a Greek chorus in the police interrogation room, composed of minor characters, fills in the gaps in knowledge, verifying that the three leads are intricately involved.
Who thought an elementary school could be such a vile and vicious place? The competition, envy and back-biting are served up with the vital politics of niceness, and the never-ending battle between the stay-at-home and the working mothers. Madeline says, “This is Monterey! We pound people with Nice.” “To death,” Celeste adds.
It may seem like posh power play, but look deeper and you’ll find the limited series discusses the dynamics of female relationships. It is being referred to as a feminist show, and while there are no sword-brandishing, dragon-riding heroines here, it is fiercely and defiantly female. They may be insecure, angry, bitter, bitchy, vulnerable, and ultimately even murder-y, but they are unfiltered women. The male characters, at least in the first episode, are either silent support systems (Scott), abusive bullies (Skarsgård) or simply annoyances (Tupper).
Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction adds volume to the themes of loneliness and isolation, with scenic wide shots, empty spaces and stark silences in contrast to the high-pitched and excessively busy indulgence in their kids. There may be a murder, but it clearly isn’t the most fascinating element of this mystery-comedy-drama.