Nicole Kidman as Celeste (Photo: HBO)

Most TV pilots have to do a decent job of setting up the story to draw people in: With its cinematic cast, Big Little Lies doesn’t have this problem, because the HBO audience would probably watch Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon play checkers for seven hours. But Big Little Lies goes a step beyond by casting these very familiar faces in housewife and mother roles, adding glamour to what could be a typical domestic drama, amid an idyllic landscape that the rest of us puny humans can only dream about.

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While the novel the series is based on by Australian author Liane Moriarty, was an extremely enjoyable airport read, HBO’s production, written by David E. Kelley and directed by Wild and Dallas Buyers Clubs Jean-Marc Vallée, adds layers of sophistication that the book lacks. The soundtrack, the interwoven investigation, the shots of the surging sea—even the talking heads talking smack about Madeline and her friends have much greater resonance than the pull quotes that were used to kick off Big Little Lies’ chapters. By playing up the crime at the center of this Monterey drama, Big Little Lies grips the viewer even before the stars show up.

But when they do, it’s extremely satisfying. Witherspoon’s Madeline appears to be Election’s Tracy Flick all grown up, now saddled with an unappreciative teenage daughter, an ex-husband with a beautiful new yoga teacher wife, and a first-grader who’s already growing up too fast. Her husband Ed is played by Adam Scott, but could be played by anybody in this pilot, as he doesn’t do much more than comfort Madeline’s insecurities. Laura Dern’s Renata is Madeline’s opposite and her enemy, an unpopular working mom who just joined the board of PayPal. Nicole Kidman plays Celeste, Madeline’s best friend, a beyond-beautiful former lawyer and the mother of twins. And Shailene Woodley is Jane, the mysterious young stranger who enters all of their lives.

What the novel does so beautifully, and the series continues, is navigate the shark-filled waters of elementary school, for both parents and children. Renata’s daughter accuses Jane’s Ziggy of hurting her on orientation day, quickly turning family against family and drawing lines down the middle of the school. The problem is that elementary school is full of impossible situations like that one (although the teacher did go about trying to solve it in about the worst way possible from the first -grade standpoint). Could a 6-year-old already be a sociopath? Can we believe a child who tells us he didn’t do such a thing, even when the evidence is stacked very much against him? Jane’s devotion to Ziggy and her forthright belief in him is rather sweet, even as tensions rise all around them. The lofty palaces that separate some residents from others is a profound and all too common problem: One of the talking heads describes Jane as a “Dusty old Prius parked outside of a Barney’s.”

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There’s a wealth of dramatic material available in any first-grade classroom, but outside of The Slap, Big Little Lies appears to be the first show to explore it with great fervor. Because everything those talking heads are saying is right. You can’t get more bananas than an elementary school fundraiser. There’s always the possibility of tension between working moms and those who stay at home. Parenting brings with it all sorts of unexpected social shifting and anxieties, for kids and parents both. But it’s the job overall that’s the hardest, as Witherspoon effectively conveys in this episode’s most poignant scene. Madeline tries to describe to her older daughter just why it’s so hard to see her grow up: It’s because the little girl she used to take such close care of is gone. The job she’s spent the last 18 years doing—raising this child—is about to be over for good.

These performances elevate Big Little Lies from airport fodder fiction to a prestige event, even though there’s lots of trashy fun to be had. The sniping between the moms, the mysterious backstories, the pieces that slowly get put into place: It all adds up a hypnotic package. Even better: Big Little Lies’ glossy finish points to the falsehood of the perfect life: Of the three leads, Celeste’s life appears to be the most outwardly pristine, and we already learn that her relationship with her husband may be tinged with violence. Which domestic palace will start to crumble next? Who is Jane running from on the beach? How dark will Celeste’s relationship get? Who got killed and why? There’s no way we won’t be turning in every week to find out.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to the world of Big Little Lies weekly reviews! Very excited to be here, I have been jonesing for this show since its first previews.
  • Important question to ask: Did you read the novel? I have, and I loved it, but I wish I didn’t know the details about the show’s focal murder going in. I was also unable to put down Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret.
  • That said, if you have read it, please keep all spoilers to yourself in the comments.
  • Best mom outfit: Madeline’s first day of school floral print dress, matching cardigan, and Mary Janes that injure your foot.

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