HBO’s splashy new miniseries BIG LITTLE LIES is ostensibly a murder mystery set in the rich, implausibly beautiful town of Monterey, California. But it’s less about who did the killing, and more about the world that helped create the killer.
Big Little Lies opens with the revelation that someone is dead. But it doesn’t tell us who the victim is, nor who killed them or why. It merely launches into building a world where anyone could have killed anyone else, because this is a community fueled almost solely by jealousy, gossip, anger and suspicion. The fact that someone is dead is far and away the least interesting thing about this show.
Based on the very popular 2014 novel of the same name by Lianne Moriarty, Big Little Lies follows the story of four mothers whose children all attend first grade at Otter Bay Public School. Madeline, a meddling busybody type who fancies herself a queen bee of the mom set, befriends Jane Chapman, a young single mom who has just moved to the area with her son Ziggy. Madeline, in turn, introduces Jane to her best friend Celeste Wright, a reserved ice queen with a devastatingly gorgeous, considerably younger husband and a perfectly curated Facebook life.
After the kids’ first day, Jane’s son is accused of bullying the daughter of crusading career mom Renata, who happens to be Madeline’s arch-nemesis. “Battle lines were drawn,” as one witness explains. The ongoing tensions set up between these four women as a result of this moment will power the bulk of the series, and everyone in town has opinions about it – on everything from whether Ziggy is guilty to how the school should have responded to Jane’s parenting skills. The parade of witnesses all point to this moment as the start of something significant, something that could have caused all the terrible (and apparently deadly) things to come.
To be fair, there’s a real sense of foreboding and danger in this episode. But weirdly enough, it’s not got much to do with the fact that someone died in its opening moments. It’s more that the people in Monterey are themselves the danger. Like the sharks that glide through Big Little Lies’ opening credits, we get the sense that these people are capable of anything. These are fake, false people, who talk out of both sides of their mouths, who smile at you one day, and knife you in the back on another. “They’re vicious,” as one witness explains. And no matter how they “pound you with nice”, as Madeline puts it – for the most part, it’s all still just an act. The big little lies are basically the things people say every day.
But that’s part of what makes the whole thing so much fun. These people all seem pretty terrible, so we might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride, right?
The series’ star-studded cast is stacked with talent. Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and more play the harried, gossipy, vengeful women of the Otter Bay Public School set with varying degrees of fire, desperation and pain. In a world where series with multiple meaty leading roles for women don’t come around that often, this feels like an embarrassment of riches. Witherspoon’s Madeline is probably the best out of the gate: Angry, ambitious, petty and surprisingly loyal, the character feels like a natural next step for the actress after Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods and Election’s Tracy Flick. We don’t’ know much yet about Kidman’s icy Celeste, but her troubled marriage is certainly concerning. And Woodley’s Jane is charming and well meaning, even though she is clearly hiding some kind of dark secret in her past.
In a surprising – and extremely smart – change from the book, corporate warrior Renata (Dern)’s voice is added to the mix in her own right. We don’t see her POV in the book in this way; the novel remains focused on the main trio of Madeline, Celeste and Jane. But here, the contrast between the career and stay-at-home moms within the community feels like an important distinction to draw, and an worthwhile perspective to include. Here’s hoping they build on this further – Renata’s strident belief that she can be a dedicated parent and also maintain a high-powered job, money and influence of her own is an interesting (and relevant) one. The question, of course, is whether this belief is in any way more fully based in reality than the kinds of things that Madeline says.
At the end of the day, this is a story about rich, privileged people, who revel in being rich and privileged. They have nothing else to do but obsess about their children, their neighbor’s children and the general gossip about everyone else in town. They’re not only into competitive parenting, they’re into competitive relationships and competitive businesses. These are not particularly likable characters, and we’re left in a strange position as viewers watching them. We are curious about who they are, and the mysteries of their lives. But we don’t particularly want any of them to succeed. We’re not exactly rooting for them, in general. And I’m not particularly sure if, at this precise moment, any of us would be particularly upset to find out that any of these characters were dead. (Perhaps Madeline excepted, as she is currently my favorite.)
The novel also did this thing where they kept the identity of the dead person from the reader, almost right up to the very end. In that instance, the journey was worth much more than the final revelation, and I suspect the same will hold true for the TV show. The murder is a frame for the rest of the narrative, and it may not even be the most interesting mystery we’ll encounter this season. It seems obvious that almost everyone in this community is hiding something, and it’s just a question of what.
In short: Big Little Lies is the prestige drama version of a soap opera. It’s Desperate Housewives mixed with The Night Of. It’s this-close-to-shallow TV that you can still feel good about watching. And it might actually have something to say. (But we’ll have to wait and see on that last bit.)
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01Eo1)
Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9PM on HBO
Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
Follow Lacy on Twitter: @LacyMB
Keep up with all of Lacy’s reviews here.
Lacy Baugher | Contributor