There is a moment very early on in HBO’s marquee-heavy limited series Big Little Lies that defines the DNA of the story, based on the best-selling book from Liane Moriarty.
It’s the first day of school for the coddled first graders of Monterey’s fictitious Otter Bay Elementary, and all the warring moms (and a few dads) have temporarily put aside their nastiness to pick up the kids. Gathering the parents outside, everyone in a circle, the first grade teacher says it was a very good day except for one tiny thing: Somebody in the class hurt another student, the little angel of a high-powered, wound-tight mom, and the teacher inexplicably wants the guilty party to step forward and apologize — in front of everyone. The little girl even has bruises on her neck — so there’s a strangler in their midst. In dramatic fashion, the teacher points out the sweet new boy, son to the single mom who moved away from Santa Cruz to start a new life in this den of lions.
Never mind that this scenario would never happen. Never mind that this public allegation and finger pointing turns into predictable confrontation, or that after it turns into a garbage fire of elite nastiness the teacher says, “Maybe this is a bad idea.” No, what’s really important is that there has rarely been a more stark example of the opt-in/opt-out moment that’s in play for most series (though rarely this blatant). If you want to watch more of this calculated, phony kind of confrontation, which usually entails a detailed monologue of ridiculousness, then definitely keep watching because you’re going to get a lot of it. If this is the kind of red flag that scares you off, congratulations, you just saved seven hours of your time.
Big Little Lies revolves around a big hot mess of “issues” that adults face, painstakingly acted out in ways that don’t have much connection to reality, whether it’s how people talk to each other or act around each other. By shifting the story out of Australia and to the swanky seaside town of Monterey, the production ratchets up the Rich White People Problems factor that dominates the story.
It begins with a murder — the twist being that we don’t know who was murdered or who the potential killer is — but within a shockingly short time frame of getting to know these characters, it’s hard to actually care about who gets offed.
That might be baked into Moriarty’s story, but it could just as easily be exacerbated by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice) writing all the episodes, or perhaps how it was constructed, with an annoying Greek chorus of parental witnesses talking in overheated, gossipy tones to the police investigators, interjected repeatedly to move along the plot. The device is so infuriating that you’ll wish whoever did the killing comes back to mop up these annoying trolls as well.
Big Little Lies has garnered a lot of attention because of its gaudy cast. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman (both executive producers who spearheaded the adaptation), Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott and James Tupper topline the project, with Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Wild) directing all episodes and the prolific Kelley writing them all. There was a huge budget and a bidding war, with HBO coming out on top.
Unfortunately, Big Little Lies feels a lot like a soapy ABC drama, with nudity. That will probably be a huge endorsement for some, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a sprawling, A-list heavy melodrama and murder mystery, but the endeavor seems to be constantly pushing its take-me-seriously tone and getting in the way of the fun. It’s precisely that rigorous pursuit of gravitas that makes Big Little Lies so divisive. On top of the murder and the twists that will come from it, we are to fixate on bad marriages, abuse, working moms vs. stay-at-home moms, recalcitrant teens, bullying, suburban ennui, general unhappiness and a bevy of hurt feelings and curt social exchanges.
It’s a lot. And it’s never subtle.
Witherspoon is Madeline, the mostly stay-at-home mom whose in-your-business forthrightness and constant need to be in the middle of arguments makes her the center of every storm. She’s got a teenage daughter giving her endless grief and a precocious first-grader acting like she’s 35, as well as an ex-husband (Tupper) now married to a younger, earthy-crunchy yogi (Kravitz); that relationship is constantly annoying Madeline, which in turn annoys her current husband Ed (Scott, in a bushy beard), who doesn’t want to be anyone’s consolation prize. Madeline gets in everybody’s business, particularly that of young single-mom Jane (Woodley), whose kid is the one accused of the faux-strangling on Day 1 of first grade and it all goes sideways from there. See, Jane doesn’t fit in because she’s not rich, petty or have husband issues, three things that Big Little Lies drowns in.
Kidman is Celeste, who’s married to the younger Perry (Skarsgard) and has two adorable twin boys and the so-called “perfect” marriage, which is immediately revealed to be darker than expected. Dern is Renata, the high-powered, extremely volatile working mom who clashes with Madeline (and lots of others) and the one who named her choked daughter “Amabella,” creating confusion and annoyance.
Skarsgard, Tupper and Scott are three variations of husband, further examples of the clichés that Big Little Lies vehicles in about people, couples and sexes. Ultimately they are mostly B-story fodder as the women take center stage and, well, do clichéd things.
Of course the issue with clichés is they are founded on at least partial truths, and those all-too-obvious truisms are what Big Little Lies wants to dissect, but then sheds all nuance in the pursuit of illustrating them. That said, Witherspoon and Kidman are given a lot to work with, dramatically, and they run with it (as does Scott).
The series might have worked better if it let the strong cast make the most of the troubled writing — good actors can elevate tired scripts and, in reverse, tamp down overly dramatic ones. But that Greek chorus of witnesses that props up the construction of the series undermines their work. It’s completely over the top as it tries to add details via gossip and commentary. When Scott’s Ed character, feeling shunted by Madeline’s fixation on her ex-husband, expresses his displeasure in a perfectly fine scene, Vallee and Kelley follow it with one of the townsfolk chorus saying, “Scratch the surface of any Jimmy Stewart? Charles Manson.”
Great — thanks for the anvil.
The principal of the school says this in his interview with police: “Actually, in my graduate thesis I coined the term ‘helicopter parent.’ But these gems — they’re f—ing kamikazes.”
Yeah, that kind of stuff. Over and over and over again.
If high drama and soap are things that attract you, Big Little Lies is going to be a must-watch limited series. For others, however, the overly constructed scenarios are too much — you can almost see Moriarty (and Kelley and Vallee and the cast) pulling various muscles in the process.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Santiago Cabrera, P.J. Byrne, Virginia Kull
Written by: David E. Kelley
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Based on the book by: Liane Moriarty
Premieres: Sunday, Feb. 19, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)