In the opening credit sequence of the new HBO miniseries Big Little Lies — which is based on the recent novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty, and premieres on Saturday — surf splashes on the rocky shores of the California seaside town of Monterey. The muted colors and repeated shots of waves crashing violently on jagged rocks suggest turmoil below the surface of this postcard-perfect place. “This is Monterey,” Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) tells a new friend over coffee after dropping the kids off at school. “We pound people with nice.” “To death,” Celeste (Nicole Kidman) adds.
Consisting of seven episodes, all written by veteran network drama scribe David E. Kelley and directed by indie filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies presents a very stylish yet believable world of seemingly petty disputes that mask huge chasms of discord amongst the residents of this wealthy enclave. The first episode opens on flashing red and blue lights and the sound of heavy breathing, and a shot of women milling about in gowns and tiaras. The show periodically returns to this scene of the crime, a school fundraiser where someone was murdered, and it walks the line expertly between intrigue and melodrama — a tonally complex and brilliantly suspenseful drama that’s juicier than a California grape.
Like True Detective, the story is narrated through testimony to detectives whom we barely see; instead we see a Greek chorus of men and women commenting on the feuds circulating amongst the parents of Monterey. The testimonies add to the sense of prurience in the town — the feeling that everyone is nosing in on everyone else’s business, but no one really knows what’s going on under the chrome-shiny surfaces of this well-heeled town.
While the husbands are not incidental to the action, we see things squarely through the women’s perspectives. Witherspoon is fantastic as Madeline Mackenzie, a stay-at-home mom and consummate busybody who’s obnoxious but fun. “Sometimes I think it’s us against them — the career mommies,” she tells Jane Chapman (Woodley), a newcomer to Monterey, who’s a young, single mom with a hazy backstory. Madeline quickly takes Jane under her wing, coming to her defense when the latter’s son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), is accused of hurting a classmate — the daughter of Renata Klein (a hilariously overbearing Laura Dern), a “career mommy” who humblebrags about joining the board of Yahoo.
Madeline’s closest friend is Celeste Wright (Kidman), a gorgeous stay-at-home mom whose hot-and-heavy relationship with her husband is the envy of every other couple in town. Celeste’s twin boys look like a Ralph Lauren ad come to life; her whole family does, including her hunky banker husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), with whom she has fabulously passionate sex — usually right after he’s beaten the shit out of her.
The show is finely attuned to the details, right down to the brand of organic milk everyone drinks. All those beautiful, balanced dinners eaten in huge, open-concept kitchens with picture-window views of the ocean; all those beautiful white children, who provide perfect cover for any transgression — all for the children, anything for the children.
Madeline has two daughters, one, Chloe (the delightful Darby Camp), who’s just starting school, and a teenager, Abigail (Kathryn Newton) — who’s growing closer to her hip young stepmother, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), a bohemian yoga instructor with long, braided hair and rock-hard abs who also has a daughter in school with Chloe. When Renata’s daughter, Amabella (the cherubic Ivy George), points to Ziggy as the one who left a mark on her neck on the first day of school, it sets in motion a chain of events that will, apparently, lead to someone’s death.
The show has a keen, biting wit, particularly when it comes to its colorful array of helicopter parents. But it also casts a sinister pall over its idyllic setting, and it nimbly weaves the schoolyard drama with the adults’ conflicts; there’s a clear parallel between Amabella, who refuses to talk about who’s hurting her, and Celeste, who keeps her own husband’s abuse safely under the roof of her seaside mansion.
Throughout the series — I’ve seen six of seven episodes and will now have to go out and get the book because there’s no way I’m waiting six weeks to find out how this ends — we keep flashing back periodically to the night of the fundraiser, those flashing lights, cutting in and out like a premonition. Vallée’s directing adds a kind of fluidity to Kelley’s adaptation of the novel, a music-video dynamism that reminded me at times of Scorsese. Like The Young Pope, different episodes have different sonic themes; in some episodes, Vallée returns again and again to the same song, abruptly cutting in and out like unwanted violent thoughts impinging on someone’s mind.
The performances are the show’s greatest strength. Witherspoon is wonderful as the pushy, sardonic Madeline, breathing life into a character that could easily become a cliché. You can see that she truly thinks she’s being helpful when she meddles, but she’s at least a little self-aware — “I love my grudges,” she says. “I tend to them like little pets.” And you can see how vulnerable she feels about her oldest daughter becoming best buds with her cool new stepmom — how frantic her search for meaning in her apparently perfect life.
Like Amazon’s pilot for I Love Dick, another woman-centered literary adaptation, there’s a sense that these women are underused, that their comfortable home lives leave them with a surplus of neurotic energy; that children alone, no matter how adored, just won’t fill that gap. As Madeline tells her nice-guy husband, Ed (Adam Scott), her family is her “universe.” Later, Celeste admits that taking care of the children isn’t enough for her, a confession that she deems “evil.”
Nicole Kidman is exquisite as Celeste, who was once a lawyer but now stays home with the kids, which is exactly where her husband wants her. There’s something subtly menacing about Perry, whose over-the-top affection for his wife feels smothering even before he hits her. Like the murder mystery, Kelley and Vallée nimbly tease the truth about Celeste and Perry’s relationship, the violence behind the passion that the other couples envy. While it’s clear that Perry is abusive, it’s also clear that Celeste loves him, and that she enjoys the sex as much as he does. It’s a remarkably nuanced depiction of domestic violence, one that acknowledges the tragedy of spousal abuse, namely, the difficulty of extricating abusive behavior from real feelings of love.
Like a steady drum beat growing louder and louder, Big Little Lies intensifies as it unfolds. Nothing seems to resolve; everything snowballs, and you’re left wondering which of these spats will lead to death. Music — the show has a great but not-too-obvious classic-rock soundtrack — cuts jarringly in and out of scenes, and brief flashes of action that could be from the past or the future collide with the present, like ugly thoughts surfacing and threatening to boil over.
Big Little Lies premieres Sunday, February 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO.