Jealousy, secrets, and lies spin out in a posh beachfront community
Do all good shows now have to start with a murder? It worked for Shonda Rhimes and Viola Davis and it appears to be a fine device for HBO’s new miniseries Big Little Lies, based on the best-selling novel by Australian writer Liane Moriarty. Of course, the 7-episode series is about much more than a murder. With compelling nuance, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Reese Witherspoon play complex, disparate women confronting motherhood, domestic abuse, and identity. Set in the posh community of Monterey, where one beachfront home is bigger than the next, their interior lives are worth exploring. And weekly, right here, I’ll be exploring them with you.
Let’s start this week at the beginning. “Somebody’s Dead” opens on the flashing police sirens of a mysterious crime scene. A murder has taken place at an elementary school, where the women’s Audrey Hepburn-styled costumes accentuate the lunacy of grade-school fundraisers. (It’s gonna be amazing for the Monday-morning gossip hounds.) We don’t yet know who the victim is, only that this person suffered a broken pelvis and a fracture at the base of the skull. A slew of witnesses set up the politics that will be sure to play out throughout the series.
This is a show about jealousy, secrets, and lies. The politics here play out among the mothers of the first-grade class at Otter Bay Elementary, where you get “a private school education at public school prices.” On one side, you have Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Witherspoon in all her grown-up Tracy Flick glory, the school’s queen bee, stay-at-home mom who at first appears to represent all you could possibly hate about that type of person. Early on she befriends plain Jane Chapman — Woodley, as the young single mother to Ziggy — who in contrast to Madeline seems to want to blend into the scenery with her oversize clothes and survival-mode disposition. Madeline explains to Jane how things work in Monterey, the hard divisions between the stay-at-home/part-time moms vs. the career mothers. “The over/under in this town is $150,000,” says Madeline. “I work in community theater, so I’m definitely an under.”
They are joined by a third crew member: Madeline’s best friend Celeste, the aloof Kidman, who never seems to actually be in the moment she’s a part of. She’s the seemingly perfect mother of twin boys, who gave up her lucrative career as a lawyer for her doting, handsome husband (Alexander Skarsgård) and a glorious home. But she may be hiding the biggest secret of all.
These three are each grappling with their own demons, and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild) uses his signature music stylings and flashbacks so effectively to convey their turmoil. Jane keeps flashing back to a night involving a ripped blue dress, a stumble on the beach, and a man’s footprint. Madeline is confronting the real pain associated with her children getting older. Her youngest, Chloe, is starting first grade while her oldest, teenager Abigail, seems to be enjoying her once-absent father, Nathan (James Tupper). He left Madeline when Abby was a baby, but he’s now returned with a younger, free-spirited, soulful, peaceful wife Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and a first-grader who happens to be in the same class as Chloe.
Celeste’s far-off look in the beginning of the episode indicates all is not well.
NEXT: Bullying starts young
Besides the introduction to these three women, we also meet Renata Klein (Laura Dern abandoning her hippy nature for an against type, uptight ambitious career woman), who mistakes Jane for a nanny, brags about her seat on the board of PayPal, and totally loses it, somewhat rightly, when her daughter with the most ridiculous name ever, Amabella, is choked by a fellow first-grader. “Little boys don’t get to go around anymore choking little girls and none of us want to raise bullies,” screams Renata. Jane’s son is accused of the crime and the rift between the mothers begins.
My one gripe here is the setting for this entire showdown. I know this is how it’s written in the novel, but there is no way a first-grade teacher at a public elementary school would call the entire class and their parents together for an open-air meeting where one 6-year-old is given the opportunity to accuse another of choking. I know this is fiction but come on, let’s try to resemble some form of reality.
Despite the inauthentic setting, Jane’s outsider status to this rich enclave is one of the compelling plot points of the series. And for the most part David E. Kelley’s writing handles these women’s stories with nuance. Yet, when one of the bitchy witnesses describes Jane as a “Dirty ole Prius parked outside of Barney’s” it feels like we are drifting easily into Real Housewives territory. We’re better then that, right?
I would like to take this moment to comment on the husbands in the series. Adam Scott’s Ed serves as a nice balance to Witherspoon’s manic personality. His character appears to get what drives her and their dynamic appears to be the most interesting to explore. Skarsgard is also perfect for this part. He’s equally charming as he is venomous and when he turns on Celeste, grabbing her forcefully by the wrist, you suddenly understand what her faraway look is all about. And then there is Renata’s husband. What a weenie. She admits to him that she’s not well liked at school. Rather than be supportive, he condescends her: “Women, you all want to be the envy of your friends, but god forbid you garner too much of it.” What a tool.
To me the best scene of the episode is Witherspoon at the piano with her daughters. It’s the most human we see her and for any mother, it’s an incredibly relatable moment. She’s right. People don’t tell you that you lose your children. And for Madeline, like most women who have come before her, children change everything and then 18 years they leave the house. That’s a whiplash of emotion and if this series has the nerve to explore that, in detail, it will be worth it. Plus, who doesn’t want to look at those homes for another seven hours. Count me in.