Before audiences even learn a single thing about the raucous settlement of upper-middle-class parents at the heart of HBO’s Big Little Lies, the series immediately invokes a sense of dread, opening with ominous blue-and-red police lights reflecting off the surface of random objects, followed by a shot of an unidentified dead body. In a flash, the show marks itself as a twisty whodunit, one more studied in the manner with which it teases out the identity of victim and murderer alike than in its consideration of the strange social behaviors and upheavals of the Monterey community at its center.
Indeed, any time Big Little Lies moves back toward stoking intrigue and suspicions about which character has blood on his or her hands, it grows repetitive, excessively expositional, and even a bit cutesy. This, of course, shouldn’t come as a shock, as the series was adapted by David E. Kelley, the king of 1990s TV legal procedurals, from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name. Throughout his oeuvre, Kelley’s ability to convincingly pen intimate, even confessional moments between characters has always been outweighed by his gift for writing about procedural exchanges slathered with professional lingo, whether it be legal, educational, or otherwise. The imbalance between those two focuses, however, has rarely been as clear as it is here.
Under the direction of Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild), Big Little Lies is a seductively shot, intermittently compelling melodrama revolving around the rivalries between a group of mothers and their children at a posh Monterey elementary school. Kelley gleefully indulges in depicting the petty obsessions that grip these self-important characters, as Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) squares off with an opinionated tycoon, Reneta Klein (Laura Dern), over her dream of staging a local production of the “controversial” Avenue Q. A series of incidents between Renata’s daughter, Amabella (Ivy George), and Ziggy (Iain Armitage), the son of mysterious new neighbor Jane (Shailene Woodley), only widens the rift between the town’s two super-moms.
Witherspoon is a pro at playing a particular breed of ambitious self-starters, and she clearly relishes unleashing a highly subjective sense of justice when Madeline thinks Renata is being unfair to Jane or when she feels her ex-husband’s new wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), is overstepping boundaries. Woodley also brings a striking undercurrent of angst and fear to a young woman who clearly needs a win or two: Whenever Jane speaks, she seems to be quietly trying to back out of a situation or get a handle on some chaotic event, so when she dances to the B-52’s song “Dance This Mess Around” at one point, the necessity of the pleasure that registers on her face feels palpable.
As Celeste, the ex-lawyer, mother of two, and wife of power-hungry Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), Nicole Kidman also impresses, freer and more instinctive in her delivery and movement than she’s been in at least a decade. Throughout, the actress’s seemingly arbitrary physical gesticulations hint at the turmoil simmering beneath her character’s otherwise prim exterior. Celeste speaks with a giddy impulsiveness when she reveals to Madeline that she and Perry have great sex after their more heated arguments. Vallée expertly captures a handful of astounding long takes of Kidman silently staring, her face almost unperceivably moving from observation to worry to horror to desire and back to a mask of normalcy.
Throughout the episodes previewed for press, the scandalous interactions between the show’s children become at once a reflection of the underbelly of their parents’ manicured façades and the events that most compromise those façades, endangering the town’s precarious civility. Much of these scenes are insidiously entertaining, but Big Little Lies comes up short in its well-intentioned social criticism. The digs at the empty rituals, outlandish grievances, and whims of this distinctly white upper-middle-class, including the tribal trial that goes down when Amabella is asked to turn in one of her fellow classmates, rarely cut deep enough to leave an impression.
Sometimes after simply and quietly basking in the allure of its coastal environs, the series strikes an unexpectedly vibrant note by suddenly homing in on the smothered desires of one of its characters. But mostly it hangs on the surface, as Vallée’s devotion is mostly to advancing Kelley’s more plot-centric tendencies and less to any novel exploration of the show’s underlying fixation with modern parenting. The desire to ruminate on why so many of today’s mothers and fathers have become obsessive, aggressive, and unreasonable about their children and their over-scheduled lives is understandable and even relevant. As it stands, Big Little Lies is too regimented in its storytelling to conjure any real insight into the privileged world it’s embedded in, let alone a convincing feeling that the people behind the series know how and why that world manages to continue to spin.