December 22, 2017 at 11:37 AM EST

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When Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman first got together to discuss bringing Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel Big Little Lies to television, they never predicted the critical love, awards, and audience adulation that would follow (including a recently announced season 2).

“This never happens! It’s been simply extraordinary,” says Kidman. “It’s been such a surprise because as much as we believed in it, we didn’t know whether it would connect.”

In fact, viewers flipped from the start over the story of three mothers (Kidman, Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley) who become entwined when their small children are placed in the same class at a private school in tony Monterey, California. Each mother had a compelling story line: There’s Kidman’s Celeste — beautiful, with a seemingly perfect life and handsome husband (Alexander Skarsgård) — who hides her domestic-abuse truth; Witherspoon’s Madeline, a feisty ringleader who must contend with her ex-husband and his perfect new wife (Zoë Kravitz); and Jane (Woodley), a young single mom hiding a big secret, who ends up tangling with alpha mom Renata (Laura Dern).

Having TV veteran David E. Kelley write the entire series and director Jean-Marc Vallée behind the camera for all seven episodes gave Big Little Lies a sense of cohesion — to say nothing of the beautiful vistas, the aspirational real estate, the infectious soundtrack — that resulted in the feeling that this was one long feature film.

“I was just going to do the first couple,” says Vallée. But he quickly found he had become too emotionally engaged. “I felt like I couldn’t abandon it—or these women.” Us either.

Big Little Lies will return for a season 2 on HBO.

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