Big Talent Brings Big Success on HBO's Riveting Miniseries 'Big Little Lies'
"Big Little Lies" is the finest product of the Peak TV era. At a time when the most interesting and dynamic projects appear on the small screen, it's no surprise a prestigious HBO miniseries can court big talent - both in front of and behind the camera.
"Big Little Lies," premiering Feb. 19 on HBO, boasts a marquee cast of actors who mostly made careers in film: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern. In addition to its star-studded cast (which also includes Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz and Alexander Skarsgard) TV writing vet David E. Kelley ("Boston Legal," "Ally McBeal") adapted Liane Moriarty's best-selling book for the small screen with director Jean Marc-Vallée ("Wild, "Dallas Buyers Club") helming all seven episodes.
With a group of brilliant performers, a TV legend and a filmmaker known for his gorgeously intimate work, it's no surprise "Big Little Lies" has a big payoff, resulting in beautifully stylized, a well-written riveting drama that is ten times more entertaining than the latest season of "Real Housewives." The show also has Witherspoon giving one of her best performances in recent memory. It's safe to say the limited series is one of the best shows of the year.
Set in the stunningly beautiful seaside town of Monterey, Calif., "Big Little Lies" is a delicious satire while being a subversive whodunit that neither reveals the "who" or "dunnit" part of the equation. At the center of the drama is Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Witherspoon) - an overbearing, controlling, savage and ruthless mother who is at the same time devious and empathetic. She is, without a doubt, Tracy Flick at 40 years old.
"Big Little Lies" starts with a murder. In the first episode "Somebody's Dead," we learn that, well - somebody is dead - offed at a trivia night hosted by Otter Bay Elementary, a fictitious public school that has the pedigree of a well-to-do private school. Neither the victim nor the suspect is revealed, however, and the rest of the series is told in flashbacks. The episodes are peppered with insights from minor characters, who give testimony to police about Madeline, her two friends Celeste (Kidman), Jane (Woodley) and Madeline's archenemy Renata (Dern).
We might no know the identities of the killer or the victim, but the framing device keeps you guessing throughout "Big Little Lies" and sets up a plethora of possibilities as to who could have killed whom.
The apparent catalyst for the murder takes place on Otter Bay Elementary orientation day, a Monterey resident tells authorities. This is when Madeline first meets Jane. The two women quickly forge a friendship after Jane, a young single mom of one boy who is new in town, shows Madeline an act of kindness. Madeline can be a monster (especially if you're on her bad side) but she quickly takes Jane under her wing and stands by her side after an incident of alleged abuse is exposed in front of students and parents at the end of orientation day. Jane's son Ziggy is accused of choking Renata's daughter, causing the parents to pick sides: #TeamMadeline vs. #TeamRenata.
The ongoing feud only drives the bond between Madeline and Jane, as well as Celeste, to grow and thrive. The three women are thick as thieves, sticking up for one another while Renata attempts to take down Madeline, who proves to be a master manipulator and no match for Renata, a businesswoman on the PayPal board.
Witherspoon's fantastic performance makes Madeline a thrilling and complex character. (She's just one degree away from Kathleen Turner in John Waters' 1994 film "Serial Mom.") She's firing on all cylinders, never breaking for a moment, often spitting out one-liners and catty disses that has Joan Rivers applauding from up above. Though she has less airtime, Dern, cast against type, is equally exhilarating, wonderfully satirizing the nightmare suburban mom - the type who will throw her kid a $30,000 birthday party and then send her to therapy.
Celeste is less vicious and not as boisterous, but Kidman plays her with a gentle tenderness. When Celeste's story of martial abuse comes into focus, and her image of a perfect marriage crumbles, Kidman splits herself into two versions of Celeste: The one with her friends and the one with her dangerous husband (the excellent Alexander Skarsgård). Kidman's performance reaches a climax later in the series when she has to confront her husband during tense therapy sessions.
Woodley also gives a cool and balanced performance, showing a range of emotion that plays well against Witherspoon's often-manic Madeline. She gets to do some heavy lifting when a trauma in Jane's past is revealed and becomes an intricate part of her story.
Living up to its name, "Big Little Lies" goes beyond a murder mystery. The show examines how the false truths we tell ourselves and those around us - about our relationships, friendships, and careers - can snowball from innocent white lies into life-altering events. The show also does what most prestige series fail to do: portray multifaceted women with depth and empathy. Witherspoon's Madeline joins the ranks of Rust Cohle, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano - an anti-hero lead, who maybe isn't as mopey as the others but is just as interesting.
The women of "Big Little Lies" aren't one-dimensional; they're more than just moms and wives. They are women who desire sex, careers, and power. Kelley and Vallée do a great job at bringing these characters to life, but it's Witherspoon, Kidman, Woodley, Dern and the rest of the cast that give "Big Little Lies" a fascinating and unnerving beating heart.