While the cancelled-too-soon “Togetherness” showed us the warm dysfunction of middle-class, middle-age life in Eagle Rock, California, HBO turns the tables, taking viewers up the coast to Monterey for “Big Little Lies” where more money means deadlier problems. At a surface glance, the adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel might seem stridently unrelatable, showcasing a community where many of the lead characters live in gorgeous, huge homes overlooking the ocean, but it soon unravels into something richer, without dulling the knife edge thrills, darkly comic tone, and twisty plot developments worthy of well written beach read.
Murder kicks off “Big Little Lies,” and the “True Detective” style narrative pivots around it, as witnesses share their stories and theories, that we see in flashback, of the four women who all had their reasons to kill… somebody… The identity of the victim won’t be revealed until the final episode, but as it becomes increasingly clear during the six episodes sent to press, there are an unending supply of motives and persons to both commit the crime, and be on the receiving end. And while the idea of a mystery withholding the biggest elements of the whodunit from the start might seem irritating, it quickly becomes apparent that the inciting incident is just one square in the elaborate fabric of a show that tears down the walls of comfortable wealth to show lives that are burdened by pain.
Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is not only the audience surrogate into Monterey, but also the guide for the newly arrived Jane (Shailene Woodley). And it’s Madeline’s hot-headed, impulsive knack for stirring the pot that often puts her at the center of no shortage of drama. “I love my grudges. I tend to them like my little pets,” she says, half-joking, half-serious. Her various ongoing battles include a brewing showdown with the city of Monterey, and skirmishes with her remarried ex-husband Nathan Carlson (James Tupper), all while trying to keep her family — husband Ed Mackenzie (Adam Scott), teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton), first-grader Chloe (Darby Camp) — from fracturing.
Jane’s problems are initially enigmatic, as she lands in the seaside town with her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage), whose father is out of picture, with little in way of explanation. Jane is on the run, but from what isn’t exactly spelled out. If she’s the portrait of troubled motherhood, then Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) are the picture of perfection, living a seemingly gorgeous, accomplished, happy family life, but naturally, there is something rotted under the facade. Meanwhile, Renata Klein (Laura Dern) shoulders the guilt of her career driven goals, and ponders the intangible cost it might have on her daughter Amabella (Ivy George).
Early on, the milieu where children’s birthday parties, yoga classes, school dropoffs and coffee shops serve as the foundation for a variety of sniping between characters, can seem inconsequential and even disposable. But TV veteran David E. Kelley (“Boston Public,” “Ally McBeal”) is serving a multi-course dramatic meal, and with each dish, another layer is pulled, and what seems superficial becomes far more dramatically weighted. Trauma, regret, and abuse are at the cornerstone of the actions for many of these characters, but eventually, their successes and achievements can’t outrun the various torments they feel.
Much of this thematic depth is evoked from an unending string of strong performances from lead, female quartet. In particular, Witherspoon will likely get a lion’s share of the plaudits and with good reason. Madeline is almost like Tracy Flick from “Election” all grown up, but it’s the vulnerability the actress brings to the character’s unyielding energy and determination that makes it something new. Hopefully Kidman won’t be overlooked for her work which really blossoms in the back half of the season, as Celeste is forced to come to grips with the shocking reality of her situation. Meanwhile, Scott again shows his non-comedy bonafides with Ed, a husband who has held steady by Madeline but finds his patience increasingly tested.
The excellent work by the cast is perhaps not a surprise given that Jean-Marc Vallee is behind the camera. He directed both Witherspoon and Dern to Oscar nominations in “Wild” (and of course, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar wins in “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) and is fast establishing himself as an actor’s director. However, he’s almost his own worst enemy behind the camera with “Big Little Lies.” With five different editors credited for the show’s seven hours, each episode plays out with frenzied cutting, flashing back in time, and crashing back into the present on numerous occasions. The witness testimony which is supposed to be the framing device eventually evaporates with repetition (they basically all underscore that the characters are neurotic and pathological), while the scenes teasing the murder don’t really add much. At a certain point, you wonder if this might’ve unspooled better more linearly, but that perhaps would’ve made some of the later stage, pulpy plot twists land more ridiculously than they do. Vallee’s achievement — even with the stylistic tics — is managing to keep the material grounded, which at times, seems an impossible task.
While it sometimes pretends and aspires not to be, “Big Little Lies” is a high-gloss soap opera… but that’s no slight. The plotting might be sensational at times, but its characters are rooted in very real spheres of distress and even suffering, which gives the limited series page-turning appeal coupled with moving, compelling drama. Monterey may bask under a perpetual golden glow, without a rain cloud in sight, but as “Big Little Lies” reveals, the real storm is happening behind closed doors. [B]
“Big Little Lies” debuts on HBO on Sunday, February 19th at 9 PM.