The bad behavior, explicit and implied, in HBO’s latest miniseries could fill a book. A bestseller from 2014, to be precise: Big Little Lies adapts Liane Moriarty’s novel for the small screen, in seven episodes written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Valiée. A glossy depiction of the secrets and indiscretions of Monterey, California’s well-heeled residents, Big Little Lies is a natural extension of Kelley’s most recent work: Like Amazon’s Goliath, it marries marquee names and big production values to the Ally McBeal creator’s predilection for pushing buttons. Here, those buttons include (but are by no means limited to) school-yard bullying, helicopter parenting, physical confrontations, gunplay, rape, rape-revenge, puppet sex, sex solicited over the internet, rough sex, domestic abuse, domestic abuse leading to rough sex, texting while driving, power plays involving Disney On Ice, and the dismemberment of a beloved classroom mascot.
The center of Big Little Lies’ privileged universe is the Otter Bay Elementary School, an exceptional public institution where single mother Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has enrolled her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage). On the first day of first grade, Jane comes to the aid of Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), a longtime Monterey resident whose reputation for stirring up trouble we glean from the Greek chorus of witnesses whose testimony frames the series. In literary fashion, Big Little Lies begins at its end, with a fundraiser that turns tragic and a crime shrouded in enough mystery to make any of the principals look like the eventually guilty party—or the victim.
Suspicion is the series’ primary mode, and the sins it depicts are enough to establish motive, means, opportunity, and intent. Madeline’s married to easygoing Ed (Adam Scott), but things are still tense with her ex, Nathan (James Tupper), whose second wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), is growing close with Nathan and Madeline’s daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton). Outside the immediate Mackenzie-Carlson orbit, there’s Madeline’s best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), who aren’t as picture-perfect as their spacious lanai and matching Ikea twins (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) make them out to be. Rounding out the lineup, Laura Dern brings some residual Enlightened pep to this Lumberton by the bay, playing Renata Klein, the fussbudget to Madeline’s busybody, who accuses Ziggy of bullying her kid, Amabella (Ivy George).
It’s a big game of Clue, only there are multiple mansions and they all have sweeping views of the water. It’s also a warts-and-all look at the home lives of characters who can afford wart-removal services, kitchen-sink drama with a lovely tile backsplash. Amid all the tawdry details, there’s a thread of commentary about the lie that Otter Bay represents, a “private school at public school prices” with a supposedly level playing field where working-class Ziggy still winds up playing the outcast. But tawdriness is paramount on Big Little Lies, which casts the froth of an airport paperback under Hollywood blockbuster wattage. Artful edits and an expertly curated soundtrack class the joint up a bit, but when Woodley and Dern go toe-to-toe, the only thing preventing things from going full-on Dynasty is the lack of an adjacent fountain.
The draw of the series is neither the central mysteries nor Kelley working with material worthier of his skills than what Goliath gives him. Rather, it’s performers of such renown tearing into such lurid subject matter and each other. Witherspoon is particularly entertaining in that light, playing a grown-up Tracy Flick who chose to lord over community-theater productions rather than slug it out in Washington, D.C. Madeline has turmoil—most of her petty tyranny projects past regrets—but she’s the comic relief to Jane and Celeste, opposite sides of the same coin who’ve experienced trauma and made sacrifices for their children. Jane’s coping is internal, communicated in jarring jump cuts and the musical catharsis pumping through her earbuds (some “Dance This Mess Around” here, a little “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” there). Celeste gets hers out in the therapist’s office, leading to bravura moments of soliloquy for Kidman, Valiée’s camera locking onto the Oscar winner (and current nominee) as she goes for her Emmy with an account of the cracks in Celeste and Perry’s façade.
The scene is a series highlight, and Kidman’s great in it, but it’s also a sign of Big Little Lies’ utter calculation, one in a collection of moments practically engineered to generate conversation the morning after the episodes air. The same could be said of the limited series that preceded Big Little Lies in its vaunted Sunday-night time slot, but all of The Young Pope’s talking points spring from a near-boundless capacity for surprise. Big Little Lies has its shocks, but it’s too well-manicured, too laden with page-turner conventions to be truly unhinged. Witherspoon and Dern can summon enough energy to loosen the constraints, but the overriding slickness of the project can’t be shaken for long. If there’s one thing Big Little Lies has in common with its characters, it’s a corrupting desire to maintain appearances. If it cut loose more often, and didn’t try to paint the messy, soapy stuff of humanity in a coat of overcast and/or blue-tinted prestige filmmaking, its imperfections would be less pronounced.
Reviews by Gwen Ihnat will run weekly.