‘Big Little Lies’: A Juicy Jigsaw of Dangerous Denial

Big Little Lies had a genius formula for success: it gave solid but not overly-nuanced roles to a group of unexceptional actors, allowing each to show off the full range of their skill in a safe environment, never stretched beyond their ability but uniformly exiting the series with the appearance of a less flawed performer.

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, two film actresses who- it’s fair to say- haven’t impressed on the big screen in quite some time, were cast as two women of compelling motivation on Big Little Lies, and were able to showcase the talents that gave them stardom to begin with. Yet neither, even on this show, successfully steals any scenes from their significantly more-talented co-stars: Shailene Woodley and Adam Scott are the beating heart of every episode.

Woodley, as a single mother who moves to Monterey and befriends our two stars, reaffirms why she impressed us in The Descendants: she’s sharp, sympathetic and- when she begins to consider violent retribution on her rapist- we’re really able to root for her. Kidman’s character also faces sexual abuse; her husband (Alexander Skarsgård)’s constant beatings are a difficult, uncomfortable element of every episode — Skarsgård is perhaps the most well-cast actor on Big Little Lies, his generally nasty demeanour and arian appearance suit a brutish villain better than, say, Tarzan or various other heroes he’s depicted. Laura Dern, as the most bitchy and powerful of all the mothers, is… well… Full Laura Dern, and her arc over the 7 episodes is one of the more satisfying. Some of the child actors are shockingly charismatic: Iain Armitage (Woodley’s son Ziggy) has been cast in a Big Bang Theory prequel, while there’s terrific work from Darby Camp, last seen in The Leftovers episode “International Assassin”.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelly are an excellent team, the former’s distinct cinematic approach diluting the inherent soapiness of the latter’s teleplays. When we aren’t witnessing domestic violence or the build-up to a climactic murder (established through clips of gossipy neighbours in an interrogation room), the show’s excitement lies in whether or not Witherspoon will successfully stage a production of Avenue Q, and what sort of Elvis costume her husband will don for the school’s Presley/Hepburn-themed gala.

Yet these petty issues feel, in a different way to the real problems Kidman is facing, worthy of our time, thanks to Vallée’s ever-moving documentarian lens. There’s a realness to the group conversations on this show, even when intercut with endless footage of waves smashing against rocks and Woodley running on a beach. A visual jigsaw puzzle is built over the 7 episodes, and by the final scene of the last episode, one feels generally satisfied that the pieces are in place.

On the subject of those waves: Big Little Lies presents a California setting far chiller than what’s presented in Parenthood or similar coastal family sagas: while Monterey certainly doesn’t feel claustrophobic, it does have an isolating effect. The tightness of the community is more a result of the schooling structure than of the location itself: when two of the mothers (mostly Witherspoon and Dern) are at war, everybody is in some way involved.

Tonally, the series flies worryingly close to the 2015 NBC drama The Slap, but the prestige production value- and the fact that there’s a clear moral endgame- saves it from that show’s corny baseness. Both feature children being introduced to violence, an actor called Skarsgård playing a very difficult man, 90s film actresses trying to reclaim glory (in The Slap, it was Uma Thurman).

Ultimately, our feuding mothers form a bond through a sort-of tragedy and are last seen laughing together on the beach: there’s arguably a plausibility gap in this, but non

But The Slap this is not: Big Little Lies earns its water-cooler moments; it’s clever and funny- sometimes unintentionally- and an excellent show to watch with a group. You’ll cheer and boo and hiss, you’ll think carefully about the impact of cruelty on a family and a community. Big Little Lies is quintessential HBO: it’s not life-changing effort, but it’s a great conversation-starter.