TV Review: ‘Big Little Lies’

Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern star in an HBO limited series about suburban moms with secret tragedies directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Big Little Lies
Courtesy of HBO

The women of “Big Little Lies” spend all of their time surrounded by glass walls. The windows and mirrors of their comfortable commuter sedans; the plate-glass overlooking implausibly beautiful oceanfront vistas in Monterey, California; even their phone and computer screens are fragile, reflective rectangles that hem them in. The opening credits show us the mothers, in particular, behind the wheel — kids in the backseat, distracted reflections in the rearview. So it is natural, when the wealthy members of the community are paraded into the police station one by one, so that a detective can ask them what happened the night of the elementary school fundraiser, the well-heeled Monterey residents each take a quick moment to check out their own reflection in the interrogation room’s one-way mirror.

Like the first season of “True Detective,” “Big Little Lies” is less about the whodunit than it is about the world. It is maddening to once again contemplate the ultra-rich — but in this case, it is also deeply satisfying; “Big Little Lies,” based on the novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty, is a bonfire of the vanities for this faux-progressive, self-satisfied set. This means there is passive-aggressive yoga, shouting matches in parking lots, and poorly disguised alcohol dependency masquerading as just having a good time. But these shorthands for suburban send-ups have never felt more earned; the show is deeply conscious of the politics of its moneyed, Silicon Valley-adjacent, largely white town.

“Big Little Lies” begins its first episode with the inciting incident — a violent death on a rocky shore, behind an oceanfront mansion where a charity gala was in full swing. But after acknowledging that there is a body, and that the concerned parties are in police custody, “Big Little Lies” stops explaining. In the four episodes released to critics, there is no further clarity on who died in the first episode. Instead the show, directed with acuity by Jean-Marc Vallée, unfolds its mystery like a delicate flower, with teased hints that are sometimes flashbacks, sometimes flash-forwards, and sometimes glimpses of imagined fantasy. The visions are accompanied by snippets of the interrogations of the witnesses — the other citizens of Monterey. They take on the part of bitchy Greek chorus: competitive, judgmental, and shamelessly eager to dish. And in relating to the investigators their interpretation of what unfolded, “Big Little Lies” starts to tell its story — beginning with that fateful day when overbearing and pushy Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) broke her heel while dropping her daughter off at school and was helped up by shy single mother Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a newcomer to Monterey.

Witherspoon, as lead Madeline, inhabits the unforgiving contours of a character who is relentlessly awful. Twice-married Madeline is entrenched in Monterey’s social scene. But she is so devoid of self-respect that every conversation — regardless of the content, importance, or ideology — turns into a absurdly heightened power play. She is a bully in designer yoga pants, and whatever sympathy she might get as a valiant, involved mother is undermined by how repeatedly she postures purely for posturing’s sake. Disagreements become entrenched feuds with awful, random frequency; she says cheerfully to Jane, bottling up that day’s rage: “No, I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”

It would be simple to flatten this role into mere villainy, but in Witherspoon’s hands, Madeline’s rage is oceanic — seething and vast, concerned only with expanding its territory. She’s plagued with Tony Soprano’s endless need to be respected — except her territory is not New Jersey’s sanitation services but Monterey’s first-grade social scene. In one example of ruthless pettiness, she undermines her rival Renata (Laura Dern) by drawing invitees away from Renata’s daughter’s sixth birthday party.

Indeed: The characters know each other because their children all attend first grade together. The story of “Big Little Lies” is a story of mothers living through, for, and around their doted-upon and organically fed children. It means that the drama is more often than not driven by the vagaries of spoiled six-year-olds wielding iPhones. At the same time, the children are guilty mostly of being too much like their parents — of repeating their mothers too accurately. When Jane is asked, again, why she and her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), moved to Monterey, Ziggy interrupts to deliver her too-pat explanation with weary, word-for-word familiarity. And in another scene, Madeline’s daughter Chloe (Darby Camp) cheerfully yells “motherf—cker!” from the backseat of their SUV.

Madeline’s best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), far more reserved, with twin boys and a younger husband. Outside the life she obsessively curates for her Facebook page, Celeste is being abused — and is strangely aroused by it. She is being boxed into a life that doesn’t make her happy. But on some deeper level, she is inflamed by being caged; here is kinky sex with invisible ropes.

In some pieces, Kidman might be overrated. Not here. She is so good at becoming this flawed and strange character that she is hauntingly arresting; her scenes with husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) are tense and obsessively engaging, ripe with subtext and violent eroticism. Celeste, like Madeline, could easily be a type — in her case, a sort of opulent cautionary tale, bouncing between fading bruises and diamond necklaces — but Kidman’s sensitive treatment of the role gives Celeste agency along with her victimhood.

It is difficult to overstate how much Vallée’s direction elevates the slightly pulpy material, so that “Big Little Lies” isn’t wallowing in its own acrimonious plot twists. The limited series has the continuous, clear vision of cinema; every episode was adapted to the screen by David E. Kelley and directed by Vallée. Moriarty’s novel is painted with the dubious label of “chick-lit”; “Big Little Lies,” written and directed by men, demonstrates both how underrated and inadequately titled that subgenre is.

Lately many serialized dramas have depended on circuitous plotting to keep viewers watching week-to-week. HBO alone has “Westworld” and “Game of Thrones” for this. “Big Little Lies” has a similar suffusion of mystery, but watching the show isn’t about waiting for the big reveal. The show’s strength is that it makes the experience of inevitable catastrophe so watchable, like being enraptured by a car-crash in slow motion. You live with creeping dread, and so do the characters.

And underneath the show’s mystery is a searing glimpse at the longevity of trauma and the limitations of intimacy, especially when it comes to the gender that still, even in the most affluent and progressive circles, tends to be the one that raises the children. And these gender dynamics are exposed in the most cloistered, catalog-perfect of environments — these glass houses of perfection.

“Big Little Lies’” protagonists are messy and bloody and furious — both exploited by a social order and cheerfully complicit, over and over again, in ensuring that it is reproduced for other families, other worlds, and most importantly, the next generation. Much of the show’s direction is dedicated to demonstrating how infrequently these women in particular can find ways to channel their well-earned, slowly simmering furies. It does not fit into the neat, transparent compartments of tranquil California motherhood — and one day, something breaks.

TV Review: ‘Big Little Lies’

Limited Series, 7 episodes (4 reviewed): HBO, Sun. Feb. 19. 9 p.m. 60 min.

  • Crew: Executive producers, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, David E. Kelley, Bruna Papandrea, Per Saari, Jean-Marc Vallée, Nathan Ross, Gregg Fienberg
  • Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Alexander Skårsgard, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling