At first glance, the miniseries “Big Little Lies” seems like a typical HBO drama.
Separated into seven different chapters, the show hits all the “HBO drama” trademarks: rough sex, profane dialogue, excellent production values, an eclectic soundtrack, a twist of dark comedy and an A-list cast playing morally ambiguous characters. But thanks to the cinematic talent of director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and the vision of creator David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal”), “Big Little Lies” transcends most of those preconceived notions as a complex dramatic narrative intertwined with a tantalizing whodunit murder mystery.
Set in the present-day beachside bliss of Monterey, California, “Big Little Lies” immediately pulls us in, opening with a montage of police officers surveying a crime scene at an Elvis-themed gala. Interspersing witness testimonies throughout each episode, the show pieces the puzzle together by depicting the potential suspects and victims of the crime just a week earlier. At the prestigious Otter Bay Elementary School, the community’s black sheep Madeleine Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”) meets new mom Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley, “Snowden”). The two bond instantly, as Jane joins Madeleine and her lawyer friend Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman, “Lion”) for intimate coffee chats. As the three get closer, they become the center of attention, especially after Jane’s first-grade son Ziggy is accused of choking the daughter of ruthless helicopter mom Renata Klein (Laura Dern, “Wilson”). The series of events that follow leave everyone somewhat unhinged, each character carrying a motive to have been involved in the murder in some way.
By stripping away the façade of socialites, “Big Little Lies” unearths the substance behind its seemingly shallow characters, especially with stunning lead performances from Witherspoon, Kidman and Woodley. In particular, Kidman and Witherspoon could earn Emmy nominations for their two women, cast aside by their husbands and other parents for being ambitious. Even the actors who play Kidman’s and Witherspoon’s counterparts — Adam Scott (“Park and Recreation”) and Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) — each give an admirable acting showcase, with Scott playing Madeleine’s nerdy second husband Ed and Skarsgard playing Celeste’s emotionally abusive spouse Perry. With their natural charisma, Scott and Skarsgard add a weight of depth to their own performances, in addition to their separate dynamics with Witherspoon and Kidman.
Occasionally, the story will, as most soapy melodramas do, enter uneven territory, shifting tonally from a biting satire on the ideological bubbles of wealthy families to a bitter depiction of domestic abuse and rape. Though necessary in portraying the show’s larger narrative, the use of testimony as a framing device feels slightly overdone in execution. Some of the dialogue feels a over-scripted, with each character spewing line after line that sound a bit too on-the-nose. At other times, however, the dialogue is the best part of the show — particularly in one astounding scene from episode three, in which Kidman’s Celeste offers a devastating yet remarkable soliloquy during a therapy session with Perry.
Next to the Emmy-worthy acting, perhaps the most consistent element of “Big Little Lies” is its sharp cinematography and editing. The visuals not only offer a crystal-clear spectacle of Monterey’s beautiful houses and beaches, but they also present us with more clues to the murder and the internal state of each character.
Sure, on the surface, a story about rich white people going through their own issues doesn’t sound the most compelling. And yes, “Big Little Lies” tends to fulfill the stereotypes of a standard HBO drama. The miniseries triumphs, however, with the strength of its deeply layered narrative and captivating visual storytelling. It is a story of parents fraught with anxious desire to find happiness in their miserable lives. It is a parable of husbands and wives unearthing the dirty laundry that they carefully buried for the sake of their children, who observe their parents’ qualms with quiet astuteness. But, above all, “Big Little Lies” is a tale of nasty secrets and the irreversible repercussions of harboring them.