Quickly emerging as one of spring 2017’s freshest and sharpest series, HBO’s Big Little Lies manages to exceed the expectations set in front of it to present a show that is often funny, often mysterious, and consistently excellent in front of, and behind, the camera.
Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, Big Little Lies is, from a creative standpoint, stacked with talent. Written by The Practice and Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelly, the show is most sculpted by its director Jean-Marc Vallée, helmer of recent Oscar-winning and nominated films such as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Reunited with his Wild stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, Vallée feels right at home with the Monterey, California-set series, and anyone familiar with Vallée’s work will also feel comfortable as his visual style is well-used here.
Witherspoon is devilishly delightful as Madeline Martha MacKenzie–a television series name if I’ve ever heard one– a theatre producer and mother who takes a new mother, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) under her wing at the beginning of the school year for their children, where the series starts. Witherspoon is not new to a role like this: peppy, sure-footed and independent, Madeline is a stone’s throw from a character like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Tracey Flick from Election. Although familiar, this character feels like a bit of a further evolution for Witherspoon, who masterfully portrayed real-life hiker/author Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Madeline has more to her than meets the eye–spurned by her ex-husband, she is quickly painted in the show as someone who gets what they want due to hard work, without the risk of losing her morals and her responsibilities. This responsibility manifests in her teenage daughter, who is leaving for college. A key scene towards the end of the episode shows how important motherhood is to Madeline, which is perhaps why Jane Chapman is so important to her.
Woodley is also quite good as Jane, a mother of a six-year-old with an evidently checkered past if we are to believe the (outstanding) editing in the pilot. Feeling very much like Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, “Somebody’s Dead” intercuts scenes in the present, as Jane, Madeline, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Renata (Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) are dropping their kids off at school, to an event an unforeseen amount of time in the future where detectives are investigating the murder of an unknown person that occurred at a fundraising event for the school. Vallée keeps the identity of this person a secret through his skillful editing, creating a mystery that the seven-episode limited series will make room to answer.
Aside from Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman has the ability to steal the show. Although not given as much screen-time as her counterparts, Kidman’s character is presented as a successful one as well, with a wealthy life, nice children, and a handsome younger husband played by Alexander Skarsgård. Her side of the story, too, sets itself up as the one containing the most mystery with Skarsgård’s character, Perry, potentially being abusive towards Kidman’s Celeste, as well as their two twin boys. Celeste is surrounded by a wave of toxic masculinity, and her soft-spoken yet confident demeanor is a perfect one for the character, which I hope we see a lot more of as the series progresses.
With a strong pilot from an outstandingly capable cast and crew, Big Little Lies is setting itself up for greatness, and I only hope that it continues to build on the momentum it has created with its first episode. Mystery and intrigue can keep an audience for so long, but as shows like How To Get Away With Murder testify too, keeping that audience along for the ride can be a more difficult struggle.