In a world where a nine-year-old’s birthday party cost rivals one year of tuition at an Ivy League institution, there is no such thing as micro-aggression.
HBO’s newest seven-episode miniseries, “Big Little Lies,” follows the lives of Monterey, California’s top mansion moms and their newest friend, Jane—a mysterious, young, single mom with a dark past and an even darker wardrobe—as they solve suburbia’s crises one community puppet show at a time.
Based on the bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty, “Big Little Lies” uncovers the power struggles of Monterey’s well-to-do families. Fans of Moriarty’s book will be pleased by HBO’s interpretation, with some lines even verbatim, as it dives deeper into the behind-the-scenes villains of Monterey. This literary faithfulness does not mean that the book is a requirement to enjoy Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård’s best work to date. Get ready for your newest TV obsession.
To call this an “all-star” cast would be an understatement. From the beginning, the executive producers, including stars Witherspoon and Kidman, sought out to make sure that the female roles were prominent, versatile and ample in proliferating the series. With more than two decade’s experience and a handful of awards between them, Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz and Reese Witherspoon commanded the silver screen in a way that is arguably unparalleled within the HBO family.
Madeline’s vivacious character is brought to life by Witherspoon alongside Kidman’s complex rendition of Celeste. Together, these best friends welcome Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, and her son, Ziggy, into the community of which they practically reign. Pitted against this power trio is frenemy Renata, played by Laura Dern. After Ziggy is accused of bullying Renata’s daughter, the Monterey mothers are forced to pick sides: Madeline or Renata.
Acting as both sounding board and instigator, these enigmatic women’s spouses did not disappoint. Beginning with Adam Scott playing Madeline’s husband, “dependable” Ed, the spouses ranged from soft and understanding to downright terrifying. James Tupper plays Madeline’s ex-husband and Zoë Kravitz’s current spouse, often butting heads with Scott’s generally passive character. The relationships in the series are constantly shifting, often turning from violent to romantic in a single scene.
The most controversial and powerful performance, though, comes from Alexander Skarsgård. Returning to HBO in his most jarring performance yet, Skarsgård is best known for his work in “True Blood” and the miniseries “Generation Kill.” Skarsgård enters the show innocently enough, acting as the handsome, doting and incredibly wealthy husband of Celeste. By the end of the first episode, the true nature of Celeste and Skarsgård’s relationship becomes apparent.
Intertwining flash-forward and flashbacks with the present, police interrogate the parents and staff of Otter Bay—Monterey’s prestigious elementary school—highlighting increasing tensions within the community rooted in equal parts covertness and pettiness. It is no secret to the viewer that the latest scandal, a fatal shooting at a school fundraising event, is one that has been brewing for months.
Though it is commendable that a single mother with a complicated past wants to relocate her son in hopes of a new beginning, “Big Little Lies” misses the mark with Shailene Woodley’s character development. The problem is less with the natural progression of her character and more with the reality of Jane’s situation. It is unfathomable that her character could work less than 20 hours a week as an accountant and make enough money to support herself and her son in a city that also houses Hollywood directors and tech company gurus. Their mansions have floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook crashing waves and their personal slice of the beach. There is no way this could be a reality, even in this fictional world.
It was a treat to welcome Adam Scott—best known for his role on “Parks and Recreation”—back to the silver screen. While strange not to hear Scott talk about Icetown, it was comforting to see him reprising his role as the devoted, dependable spouse to a determined, powerful blonde. Taking on the role of Madeline’s second husband, Scott’s character grapples with feelings of inadequacy, due to the constant reminder of Madeline’s passionate previous marriage. However, Scott’s adorable relationship with their daughter, Chloe, is enough to make him a fan favorite.
Instead of reiterating just how great Witherspoon is in “Big Little Lies,” light needs to be shed on Zoë Kravitz, daughter of Lenny and lead singer of Lolawolf, for her breakout role as a yoga-loving second wife to Madeline’s ex-husband. She has been in smaller roles here and there for about 10 years, but this is by far one of her best features.
Though the series may receive backlash from the constant time jumps, “Big Little Lies” has the potential to go the distance. Unlike anything else available at the moment, the show is the power-child of “Pretty Little Liars,” the “Real Housewives” franchise, “How To Get Away With Murder” and Instagram’s Sepia filter. The cinematography is breathtakingly eerie. The embedded issues of domestic violence, blended families, working mothers and balancing one’s present with their past are themes that will remain pertinent. Toss in some good one-liners like “I love my grudges! I tend to them like little pets” and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece in the making.
“Big Little Lies” premieres Sunday, February 19 at 8 p.m. on HBO.