Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Industry veteran Laura Dern. Rising stars Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz. Has there even been anything quite like Big Little Lies – a TV miniseries that’s centered almost entirely on instantly recognizable, A-list actresses? Following in the footsteps of True Detective and The Night Of, Big Little Lies’ is HBO’s latest attempt at captivating audiences with a limited series driven by film caliber talent. Will it, like the mini series that came before, be appointment television?
Well, first things first: while this show may seem light and bubbly on the surface, Big Little Lies is, like many other HBO miniseries, is driven by a murder. We learn in the opening moments that someone in this rich, California town has been killed and, while we don’t know the identity of the victim (or the killer), we do know that it all leads back to an incident on the first day of first grade, when a conflict between two students leads to a war between the mothers. Among the suspects: queen bee Madeline (Witherspoon), new, single mom Jane (Woodley), working mom Renata (Dern), and Celeste (Kidman), who projects the image of a perfect life but might have more going on beneath the surface.
While the show definitely takes place in something of a heightened reality, with unrealistic dialogue and characters that might be a bit too clichéd at times, writer David E. Kelly and director Jean-Marc Vallée allow the first episode to feel surreal and strangely dark. Vallée brilliantly finds drama in what is ordinarily mundane, namely in a wonderful sequence where a conflict between two children becomes an all out battle between the principal cast.
Without ever sacrificing its believability or flying too over the top, the scene becomes just as suspenseful as the dramatic courtroom showdowns found in The Night Of. And, while the dialogue may not be realistic, it is a lot of fun to listen to. Kelly understands the value of a good, vicious one liner, and also knows how to flesh out characters through words and nonverbal actions.
The real reason to watch Big Little Lies is the ensemble, however – based on the advertising campaign, HBO definitely seems to understand the star power they’ve assembled for this miniseries. And, luckily, all three of the principal actresses get a chance to shine. This is a perfect role for Witherspoon, as playing Madeline gives her the chance to embrace the darker side of her typically bubbly persona. Woodley, meanwhile, gets to dive into her first truly adult performance, and does so with aplomb. And, with the quietest of the three leading roles, Kidman manages to communicate so much of her characters through her eyes and body language, reminding us just how talented she is. It’s also worth noting that Laura Dern makes a memorable appearance in what should be a scene stealing supporting role, and that all the child actors do a nice job as well.
Based on its premiere, Big Little Lies will undoubtedly make watching HBO a priority on Sunday nights for many TV fans. Of course, being able to see this phenomenal cast of actresses shine on the small screen for eight weeks is compelling enough. But add in strong direction and a compelling mystery, and you have what might be the first truly addictive TV series of 2017.