Sometimes a driving sequence at the top of a TV show symbolizes a protagonist’s new beginning: Mary Richards heading down the highway to Minneapolis, or the Clampetts’ loaded-up truck moving to Beverly—Hills, that is. Sometimes the ride is about what lies ahead, as in the top-down cruise that opened up Boy Meets World’s fourth season of lasting lessons and class-room goof-arounds. The don of ride-along openings, meanwhile, is about routine: Over the percolating electronica of Alabama 3, the prelude to The Sopranos captures Tony Soprano’s daily commute in a style Hanna-Barbera once applied to George Jetson’s and Fred Flinstone’s trips to and from work. (Parallels that Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law eventually picked up on.)
Maybe it’s the bluesiness of their soundtracks, maybe it’s the glances in rear-view mirrors, but I couldn’t stop thinking about The Sopranos’ opening while watching screeners of the new HBO miniseries Big Little Lies—to the point where I was convinced that vehicular filmmaking is a more common feature of the premium-cable outlet’s intros than it actually is. (Big Little Lies definitely takes some pages from The Sopranos’ playbook, but a highly unscientific survey of Home Box Office original programming suggests that Entourage—“Oh YEAH!”—is the only other series in the stable to go this route.) And then there’s the routine thing, depicted here in the quotidian details of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, and Laura Dern shuttling their characters’ kids from lavish estates to a well-funded public elementary school. On the way, they pass by natural scenery that puts Tony’s turnpike views to shame, not that anyone really notices. The surf of Big Sur, the Bixby Canyon Bridge—it’s all background noise to them now, just something to be artfully synced to Witherspoon sweeping her hand through her hair.
The characters in Big Little Lies spend a lot of time in their cars, and creator David E. Kelley (working from Liane Moriarty’s source novel) uses those vehicles to connect Witherspoon’s Madeline and Woodley’s Jane in last night’s premiere, while also illustrating their differing financial statuses. Madeline has one of those Buicks that doesn’t look like a Buick; Jane drives a more sensible Prius. But in the intro and the show that follows it, the interesting stuff starts when Madeline, Jane, and company unbuckle their seat belts. Big Little Lies is a capital-“D” drama, and the procession of cast members Soul Train-ing to a truncated version of Michael Kiwanuka’s slow-burning epic “Cold Little Lies” pumps up the theatricality. The theme sequence is one part curtain call, one part Greatest Event In Television History, and in appropriately moody fashion, it broadcasts the idea that what’s happening in Big Little Lies’ drivers’ seats imprints on the little people in the back seats. The kids do impressions of adulthood with hair-flips and sashays; the adults invoke various points in the Audrey Hepburn filmography. (For the clue hunters: Woodley and Kidman are both done up like Holly Golightly outside the Tiffany window. Make of that what you will.)
And in these brief moments of poise, they find something that might not be part of the routine: control. Here, and in the car, they’re the ones with their hands on the wheel. Which is another metaphor you can get across with a driving theme-song sequence. Then again, sometimes there’s a car at the beginning of the show because the car is the show.