With Big Little Lies, HBO seemingly want to muscle in on the market of “unhappy married people having affairs/murder mystery” sub-genre that made The Affair such a big hit for Showtime. As requisite for shows of the ilk – Bloodline and Apple Tree Yard also could be considered part of the movement – it begins with a murder. The audience do not see who died or what happened.
However, from the witness statements intercut with the drama leading up to the event, we gather that it has something to do with the arrival of Jane (Shailene Woodley), a young single mother, into the lives of Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Renata (Laura Dern) – older, married women leading very different lives but all suffering from their own unique ennui and angst.
Right away, I’ll state that Big Little Lies – for all its flaws – is certainly worth watching for the phenomenal cast. Not only are Kidman and Witherspoon huge draws for HBO but there’s also Zoe Kravitz, Adam Scott and Alexander Skarsgaard ably supporting them. These are actors who have the capability of even making slightly formulaic drama pretty engaging. An example of this is Witherspoon who, although is playing a character not unlike her previous roles (the ruthlessness and desperation of Madeline, does evoke memories of her Tracy Flick persona in Alexander Payne’s Election), is great to watch. She manages to imbue a person who would be unpleasant to be around with a carefully modulated amount of sympathy. Just enough to make one like the character but not enough to soften her harsh edges.
The show also looks stellar. Even for HBO, who are renowned for their cinematic content (True Detective, Boardwalk Empire), the way Big Little Lies looks is impressive with the already idyllic Monterrey setting being beautifully framed by series director Jean Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Demolition).
That said, based on the pilot I’m not a huge fan of the intercutting between witness statements and the drama between the four leading women. It feels as if series creator David E. Kelley doesn’t have enough faith in his audience to stay engaged with the little conflicts which will undoubtedly lead to the murder – feeling the need to remind us constantly and rather jarringly “someone’s dead” (the episode’s title no less).
Also, even though these witness statements are delivered by interesting character actors (always happy to see Hong Chau, who is hilarious in Inherent Vice), their inclusion detracts from some very strong scenes. Take, for instance, a horrendously awkward moment where Renata accuses Jane’s child Ziggy of choking her daughter in front of all the parents at the first day of school. It’s a stiflingly brilliant scene, which would weirdly but amazingly evoke the human drama of Asghar Farhadi’s work if it wasn’t for the cutting back to the police interrogation. The witness statements add levity to a scene which works so much better without it. The cut takes the viewer out of the moment, destroying the immediacy.
Even with this complaint, I’m still on-board for Big Little Lies. I have on good authority that Moriarty’s novel (along with her other book The Husband’s Secret) is great – hinting the seven-episode run could hit its stride very soon. This, plus, the cast makes it essential viewing. Stephen Porzio