“It’s like I’m on the outside looking in. Or, like, I see this life and this moment, and it’s so wonderful, but it doesn’t quite belong to me.”
This is Jane (Shailene Woodley), one of the characters at the heart of HBO’s new miniseries Big Little Lies, about a group of women in Monterey, CA connected because their kids are in the same elementary school class. A single mom who supports herself as a freelance bookkeeper, Jane is worlds removed, economically, from her new best friends and enemies — most of whom have such casually obscene wealth that they barely seem aware they live in stunning homes overlooking the Pacific — yet that sense of existing separately from the details of her existence is one that applies more frequently to her rich peers than most of them would be willing to admit.
Adapted by director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley from the novel by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies (it debuts Sunday at 9; I’ve seen six of the seven episodes) is one part thriller for every four parts social anthropology. The story opens with a violent act of some kind being committed at a school fundraiser — an expensive costume gala where everyone dresses as a classic Hollywood figure, because it’s that kind of town — then flashes back to the events leading up to it, starting with Jane meeting local force of nature Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) on their way to school orientation day. Though we get teases of what happened at the fundraiser, and why — mostly through police interviews with other parents and school faculty members, who are treated as a bitchy Greek chorus — for the most part the series is interested in exploring the contrast between the seemingly perfect lives of Madeline, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), and Renata (Laura Dern) and the unavoidable sense of dissatisfaction, or worse, bubbling underneath their polished surfaces.
Even with the threat of violence down the road for someone — and the ever-present threat of same from Celeste’s abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarskgard), plus secondary mysteries about a bullying incident at school and the identity of the man who fathered Jane’s son Ziggy — the stakes of Big Little Lies are mostly small and internal: Can Madeline and new husband Ed (Adam Scott) abide the continued presence of her ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper), now married to Bonnie, in her life? Does Renata not get along with the other moms because she’s the only one who kept her high-profile job when she started a family, or because she’s awful? Will Jane and Ziggy ever be able to fit into this community where they’re such outliers?
There’s a target about the width of a needle’s eye through which most of this stuff can be threaded and not seem like the self-indulgent whining of the fabulously rich and beautiful. And while there are definitely stretches where I had flashbacks to Downton Abbey — a show whose execution I admired, but whose substance I rarely enjoyed because I could never bring myself to care about the woes of the landed gentry — the work of the cast and Vallée are strong enough that I could mostly overcome my prejudice against the subject matter and enjoy the craft on display.
Witherspoon (who worked with Vallée on Wild) and Kidman are both producers on the project — at TCA last month, Witherspoon got genuinely choked up talking about the opportunity to make a high-profile project about “real women’s experience,” featuring so many excellent female peers — and do some of their best on-camera work in roles where the running time lets them explore every nook and cranny. You may think you have pals Madeline and Celeste pegged at first as, respectively, the woman who always gets what she wants and a Stepford wife (a part Kidman’s already played), but those are just acts they put on in front of other people — sometimes the other parents, sometimes their own spouses, even sometimes to one another — when their fears and desires and hopes are much more complicated. The two share a particularly great moment in the fourth episode where Celeste, having once again concealed the true, awful nature of her marriage in front of Madeline, is thus primed to recognize that her best friend is keeping something hidden from her. In the overall scheme of Big Little Lies, it’s relatively minor, but the scripts and performances build and build to it over the previous hours in a smart, delightful way.
Vallée — who, along with director of photography Yves Bélanger and his editing team, does an impressive job giving the coastal town a dreamy vibe where past intermingles with present, and reality with nightmares, to better go inside his heroines’ heads without always requiring a monologue to do it — also gets superb work from Woodley. Jane is an outsider in many ways — not only poorer, but much younger — but Woodley is every bit her more seasoned co-stars’ equal, functioning as the emotional center of the story.
(The men, by design, mostly get short shrift, though Adam Scott gives a low-key, surprising performance as a nice guy who’s really starting to wish that he wasn’t.)
Though Kelley has famously written several series with female leads (Ally McBeal, Harry’s Law), he’s tended to write the opposite sex from a quasi-informed outsider’s perspective, often getting hung up on the mistaken belief that women are always hung up on who’s the prettiest one in the room. Here, though, he’s working with source material from the Moriarty novel, and he gives all of the main characters nuance and sympathy, revealing the flaws of the ones we may be predisposed to like and the hidden strengths of the ones who come off as terrible. Kelley’s usual tics are mostly confined to the Greek chorus scenes (which are themselves a device from the book), as the other parents come across as every bit the cartoon that Jane, Madeline, Celeste, and Renata rise well above.
There are sluggish parts, and the way the story gains momentum in the later chapters — once various relationships come to a head, and once the stakes get bigger and messier than whether Renata will shut down Madeline’s community theater production of Avenue Q out of spite — suggests Big Little Lies may play better as a binge, even if you’re naturally predisposed to the material, or even just to the lifestyle porn of it all.
“Perhaps my self-worth is made up of how other people see me,” Celeste admits at one point. She works incredibly hard, even compared to her friends, to make others see her as the woman she wishes to be (a serene, sexually blissful wife and mom), rather than the woman she actually is (battered, afraid, and full of self-loathing for how attractive she finds Perry in spite of what he does to her).
Like Celeste and the women around her, Big Little Lies is trickier and more interesting than outside appearances might suggest.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org