The women of Big Little Lies present lives of fulfilling motherhood, and they work overtime to make themselves believe it. They reside in sun-kissed Monterey, California, an oasis of serenity and progressiveness, with majestic homes overlooking a churning ocean that speaks to a yearning and tumult they can’t bear to fathom. Nicole Kidman is Celeste, the envy of everyone, a former attorney who gave up work to raise her twins, married to a suave family man (Alexander Skarsgård) with terrible demons. Reese Witherspoon is Madeline, a helicopter mom and queen-bee busybody hooked on high drama. Shailene Woodley is Jane, a single parent devoted to a boy born of sexual violence; she seeks a new beginning, but she isn’t ready for it. Each is a ticking time bomb, and their mounting stress affects everyone in their cloistered village. When the deadly explosion comes, there’s no shortage of suspects.
Big Little Lies is Desperate Housewives: Prestige Cable Edition, a soap-noir about postfeminist identity and post-community idealism — satire over slapstick, serious themes over fun-time escapism. Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild), the seven-episode miniseries continues the gold rush of starry event TV (see: The Night Manager, The Night Of), though its heaviness may discourage obsessiveness. Celeste’s arc, a tough story of cyclical abuse, grows dark over time. Both she and haunted Jane burn slowly, maybe too slowly, toward breaking points. Still, Vallée’s fluid storytelling — a lovely, dazed naturalism spliced with flashes of troubling memory — casts a spell. His juxtaposition of trapped, frozen souls and the iconography of California dreaming — the warmth, the beach, the expanse of ocean — is full of meaning. Kelley’s writing grabs you with whodunit? intrigues (a mysterious death, victim unknown, frames the season) and balances the heavy with salty levity. Police interviews with judgy, jealous townspeople function as both unreliable narrator and catty Greek chorus. A subplot involving Avenue Q amuses, because, you know, puppets.
Kidman and Woodley deliver moving portraits of still-life women, paralyzed by trauma and avoidance. Witherspoon is marvelous in a rare role that allows for comedy and drama. Her character recalls two career triumphs: the spark of Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods trapped inside a retrograde version of Election‘s Tracy Flick. She flails for significance through her kids and grudges against a hard-charging working mom (a sparky Laura Dern) and her ex-husband’s new wife, a neo-hippie yoga instructor (Zoë Kravitz).
Just when you worry the show is a pageant of ugly clichés about female rivalry, it gives you a poignant, nuanced scene to deepen the whole. Can the whodunits offer anything more interesting than just shocker payoffs? TBD after four eps. Big Little Lies invests you in mysteries and the renewal and re-liberation of its women. Hopefully it can transcend to big little truths, too. B+
Big Little Lies debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.