I'm not sure what I was expecting from HBO's "Big Little Lies," a seven-episode murder mystery miniseries written by David E. Kelley, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, and starring some of the best American screen actresses in the business. Maybe something funnier, campier, and more high-voltage, like "Feud." The show's premise certainly suggests this, with a story concerning the secrets, rivalries, and frictions among a group of affluent mothers from the seaside town of Monterey. Instead, we have a more grounded melodrama, though one that's certainly not without some bite.
At the center of the group is Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), a stubborn busybody who befriends single young mother Jane (Shailene Woodley), who has just moved into town. Though seemingly happily married to Ed (Adam Scott), Madeline is resentful of her teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) having become closer to her ex husband Nathan (James Tupper) and his younger, more laid back wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). Madeline's best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a stay-at-home mom who has a volatile relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgaard). Madeline, Jane, Bonnie, and Celeste all have youngsters attending the same first grade class together. And on the very first day of school, Jane's son is accused by the daughter of high-powered CEO Renata (Laura Dern), of hurting her. This sets off a series of events that ultimately ends in a murder.
The murder mostly functions as a ploy to set up the show's primary investigative dramatic devices. Police interviews with various gossipy townsfolk serve as a Greek chorus as we watch events unfold in flashback. We're not told who the murder victim is until the end, let alone the suspects, but there are certainly a variety of developing situations that could have lead to the slaying. The show invites viewers to guess which of the storylines is going to explode - the grudge match between Madeline and Renata? Celeste and Perry's marriage? Madeline and Bonnie's rivalry? Or Jane's search for a mystery man? It's fairly soapy stuff, but all the performances are excellent, and David E. Kelley proves as deft a scripter as he ever was. It's not difficult to get caught up in these women's lives, their little obsessions and insecurities, and watch as the layers of their facades get peeled back one by one.
I was expecting the humor to be much blacker, and this is one aspect of the show I found pretty weak. The police interviews establish an atmosphere of pettiness and toxicity in the town, and helps to contrast the public perceptions of the characters with what's actually going on. However, the flippant tone of the interviews often feels too disconnected with what's happening in the series proper. With a few minor exceptions, the characters' lives are handled seriously and played straight, especially as they start to touch on more emotionally fraught topics like rape and domestic abuse. Sure, there are a few catfights and ego trips, especially involving Madeline, but the show is ultimately very sympathetic to every single one of its complex female leads.
I think that's why "Big Little Lies" feels so refreshing. Despite flirting with all the usual negative stereotypes, the show has some remarkably positive portrayals of women and women's relationships with other women. It takes them seriously in a way that not enough shows do, even in the age of Peak TV. In the wrong hands, this could have easily been the kind of salacious domestic drama that would be fodder for a Lifetime movie. Here, however, with all the right people involved and backing from HBO, the series is an immensely satisfying piece of female-centric popular entertainment that will hopefully encourage more content in the same vein.
Finally, as a film nerd, I also want to emphasize that the show is also excellent from a filmmaking standpoint. Jean-Marc Vallée never misses an opportunity to show off the picturesque Monterey seascapes, or the staggeringly beautiful real estate that the characters occupy. Vallée is also an editor, who has a very distinctive style and often edits his own features. Here, he employs a team of at least six to help with the demands of a seven hour miniseries, yet it's still recognizably his work. There's a climactic scene in the finale that is particularly eye-catching, intercutting events from the night of the murder with crashing waves on the beach.
Vallée's next big project will be another HBO miniseries, adapting Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" with Amy Adams. I can't wait.