HBO’s new original limited series Big Little Lies, based on the best seller by Liane Moriarty, feels at once familiar and fresh. Take a generous scoop of the iconic TV series Twin Peaks, add a large dose of the soapy Desperate Housewives, and top it off with a few pinches of HBO’s own True Detective, and you will have the recipe for where this series is going, which means many viewers will try a helping and decide that they like it.
The first episode opens with a murder mystery, and as the story progresses we get scenes with the major characters interspersed with ones of interviews with attendees of the party where the murder is committed. What becomes apparent is that the glorified lifestyle in this town is both a blessing and a curse, and these beautiful people get through each day by ignoring the underlying ugliness in order to convince themselves about how great their lives are. Perhaps this murder will be the way they will be forced to face the truth.
The premise is refreshing and offers different perspectives about the characters from those people being interviewed by the police; this allows the viewers to know information that the characters do not know yet, providing dramatic irony. Knowing the script is by David E. Kelley and the director is Jean-Marc Vallee (who previously directed the film Wild starring Reese Witherspoon), it is obvious that we are in more than capable hands.
Set in the beautiful city of Monterey, California, stunning views of the ocean are a given in each of the sprawling luxurious homes where we find these characters living. Witherspoon’s Madeline is the busiest busybody in town. She is sandwiched between Nicole Kidman’s Celeste and Shailene Woodley’s Jane (as a newcomer to town). As Madeline quickly befriends Jane after hurting her ankle, it is clear that Jane is cautious about something and it cannot be good.
All of them as well as Laura Dern’s Renata have children who are first graders in the local elementary school that is more like a private academy. On the first day of school there is an incident that has Renata’s daughter Annabella (Ivy George) accusing Jane’s son Ziggy (Ian Armitage) of trying to choke her, which the boy denies doing. Madeline’s readiness to defend Jane and her son sets in motion what promises to be an extended conflict with Renata that may or may not have something to do with the murder we know has occurred.
The fact that a murder happens and then we are viewing what are essentially flashbacks for most of the episode keeps viewers on their toes, as we look for clues as to who will be hated enough to be candidates for the victim. Besides the obvious Madeline and Renata, Celeste’s overly affectionate husband Peter (a slick and slimy Alexander Skarsgard) who also is abusive and controlling seems likely on the list. We can also add Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who is now married to the younger and beautiful Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), as well.
While there are some soap opera like moments, Kelley and Vallee keep it from becoming cliché and boring as the interactions between these characters are being performed by some fine actors. It doesn’t hurt matters that the setting is in one of the most idyllic cities in California – or anywhere else for that matter – and each home seems like your or my dream house with sweeping ocean views.
While there is an ensemble clearly in place here, Madeline is the obvious center to all events and conflicts. Much to Witherspoon’s credit, she manages to take the character from cool, calculating, and annoying to moments of vulnerability. Her scene with second husband Ed (Adam Scott) on the beach and one sitting at the piano with her daughters Chloe (Darby Camp) and Abigail (Kathryn Newton) tempers our first impressions and allows us to see Madeline as more maternal and less the monster we thought her to be.
To add another layer to the mystery, we get scenes of Jane having visions of herself running on the beach in a blue dress. Also, since we are dealing with a murder, we have to wonder about that gun Jane keeps under her pillow at night. In this first episode we do not learn enough about Jane, but what we do get seems to indicate (if we can bank on Anton Chekov’s gun theory) that she has either her sights set on someone or is worried about someone coming to get her, and that gun is going to be fired.
Big Little Lies has big names in the cast and implies that the rich lifestyle we are witnessing is kind of like Picasso’s lie that tells the truth. We will have to see in subsequent episodes if these beautiful people can keep up the false smiles as the lies start to unravel.
After seeing the first episode, I am hooked by the conflicts, the setting, the characters, and I want to see what gets one person to become a killer and another to be the victim. I recommend you get on board now as the show moves toward overcoming the lies (both big and little) and begins heading down the path to the truth, no matter how inconvenient that will be.