For Big Little Lies, murder is both the beginning and end of its story. A death sits at the center of the narrative, but rather than act as the catalyst for what comes next, it is instead the end result of everything that came before. That makes for a bracing take on the same whodunit, adding another degree of difficulty by also asking the audience to ponder the question: who is the victim? The result, then, is a two-pronged murder mystery set against the backdrop of a wealthy subsection of women in Monterey, California.
Of course, a narrative that shirks the standard structure of a typical murder mystery is not and never was intended to be the selling point of HBO's new seven-episode miniseries. Rather the series aims to go the old Hollywood route by packing its cast with an embarrassment of actorly riches.
Big Little Lies is very much the kind of project Hollywood would have chomped at the bit to get off the ground just 10 years ago. On the surface, it appears to have everything: a compelling, character-driven narrative that balances drama with comedy, and promises plenty of sex and just enough death to hook even the most casual of viewers. And if that doesn't work, well, there's the cast. Led by the presence of Academy Award winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, the miniseries also boasts the wonderful Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley, who casts off the shackles of bland YA dystopias to splash around in the gossipy waters of Liane Moriarty's tale of minor incidents catalyzing into a major one.
Adapted by David E. Kelley, and with every episode directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (who directed Witherspoon and Dern in Wild), Big Little Lies is another tale of darkness lurking beneath the seemingly perfect façade of wealthy, predominantly white suburbia. Though it lacks the hypnotic psychopathy of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, viewers will no doubt see similarities in both stories, as well as hints of the more rote potboiler The Girl on the Train. Rather than careen or even zigzag toward rising action, however, Big Little Lies slowly circles a partially obscured but nevertheless deadly outcome. The snowball effect of petty helicopter parent squabbles and their alienating pursuit of perfection offers an entertaining respite from the challenges of maintaining a murder mystery for the better part of seven hours, while also presenting plenty of red herrings as to who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.
The story begins in the aftermath of the aforementioned murder; details are delivered piecemeal through a disjointed, frantically edited police detective's press conference, while hints and seemingly baseless accusations are provided by a long string of talebearing "witnesses" who serve to initiate the story through shaky appraisals of the characters'… well, character. It's a fascinating way to be introduced to Witherspoon's Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Kidman's Celeste Wright, and Dern's Renata Klein, as it give the audience an impression of these women before they're afforded the chance to do so themselves. In turn, it also gives the audience a unfiltered look at precisely what kind of world they live in. By the time the story jumps to an earlier date, long before someone is lying dead, the audience has a firm grasp on the relationships, the personalities, the ambitions, and the sometimes-petty squabbles that fuel these women's lives in Monterey.
While the specter of death looms over every episode, Kelley and Vallée follow Moriarty's blueprints well, finding ways to make the smallest slight or transgression (accidental or otherwise) land with an exaggerated sense of gravity, so that, by the time violent truths are revealed – some are revealed early – they register with atomic force.
Striking the right balance between the highs of the contentious badmouthing of a group of mothers and the vicious lows of domestic abuse and, eventually, murder comes down to the power of the performances. Front and center is Witherspoon, whose Madeline is high strung and burning with competitive energy that's like a toxin leached into her two kids. It's not hard to imagine Madeline as a middle-aged version of Election's Tracy Flick. Little things become bigger until they can no longer be contained. Mere mountains will not suffice for Madeline; molehills are reshaped into volcanoes ready to explode.
Ruled by emotions that have begun to wall her in, Madeline's competitiveness and inability to move beyond a divorce that happened 15 years prior creates a rift with her current husband Ed, played by Adam Scott (in full-on nice guy mode, a sharp change from his character on The Good Place), as well as with her two children. An innocent school assignment involving the children' family trees drudges up past grudges with Madeline regarding her first husband Nathan (James Tupper) and his new wife Bonnie who is played by Zoë Kravitz.
Yet Madeline's woes are in sharp contrast to Celeste's abusive marriage to Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) and to Woodley's Jane, who is the odd woman out. A single mother raising her son Ziggy, Jane is new in Monterey and, following an accusation of physical assault by Renata's daughter, the two earn her ire and Madeline's unwavering protection – if for no other reason than to stick it to Renata. But Jane, like Celeste, is harboring a darker secret that, if revealed, would have devastating consequences.
Big Little Lies doesn't shy away from the realization of who would actually bear the brunt of those consequences, as the exaggeratedly slanted descriptions of the witnesses early on serve to underline that, whether victim or perpetrator, women will, in some form or another, always be held accountable. The first hour doesn't shy away from pointing out where this story is headed, but the manner in which the narrative is structured compels the audience to ponder victimhood and to view a murder mystery through a captivating lens.
Blockbusters driven solely by star power are increasingly rare these days, but television has been there to offer refuge to projects loaded with it as a way to attract more eyeballs. HBO has made it work in the past with two seasons of True Detective that, in some way, feels like a precursor to Big Little Lies. Vallée and Kelley's miniseries eschews that series' thunderous machismo and comes up with a captivating story of what lurks beneath the gilded façade of suburban perfection.
Big Little Lies continues next Sunday with 'Serious Mothering' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/ HBO