Hearing the title "Big Little Lies" brings up some simple, reflexive thoughts: the lies we tell ourselves, the ripple effect of deceit, and a show predicated on both notions. Although these are reasonably accurate, the first episode establishes how writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallee, working from a novel by Liane Moriarty (also a producer), will subvert these ideas at the same time. For instance, when Madeline Martha McKenzie (Reese Witherspoon) gets out of her car en route to the first day of first grade for her kid Chloe (Darby Camp) to yell at some teens who are texting and driving, or later, when she explains the catty social network of the parents and students at the school, she reads like a certain kind of person. Maybe a few shades of Tracy Flick, Witherspoon's iconic Election character, but more of a bitchy gossip who can't keep from sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. The modern television model of feature film storytelling chopped up into episodic television (something even "Peaks" took part in) would normally dictate that Madeline's compassionate, relatable side be presented like a twist, but before the episode is over, we understand her struggle with seeing her children growing up and have a hint at her dissatisfaction with her personal and professional life.
The events of the series are set in motion after Madeline stops to chide the texting teenagers and rolls her ankle on the way back to her car. She is picked up by new resident Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), driving her own child, Ziggy (Iain Armitage) to the same school. At the end of the day, when they come to pick the kids back up, student Amabella (Ivy George) has a bruise on her neck from being choked, and she points out Ziggy when the teacher asks who did it. Amabella is the daughter of high-powered corporate businesswoman Renata Klein (Laura Dern), and Madeline's existing dislike of Renata and fast friendship with Jane combine into righteous anger when Ziggy proclaims his innocence. Yet the show is more than a simple rivalry between Madeline and Renata. There is marital discord, between Madeline's best friend Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), as well as Madeline and her husband Ed (Adam Scott). There's a legal battle that Madeline is passionate about involving the school's production of "Avenue Q." Madeline's older, teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) is spending more time with Madeline's volatile ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) and new wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). On top of it all, Jane chases her own secret demons, gun in hand, down a beach at sunset, in her memory.
Through editing, the core story is framed as a flashback, with extremely limited glimpses into the present day, mostly in the confines of an interrogation room following an incident at a school function that left one person dead. The people being questioned are practically glorified extras, who we see in the briefest glimpses but who serve no larger purpose beyond their appearance in their interviews with the police. They offer their own commentary on what's happening. In some ways, this is a hack trope, but in "Big Little Lies," it works perfectly. Not a single person in Monterey, the small California beach town where the series is set, has anything particularly nice to say about Madeline, Celeste, Jane, or Renata (or their relationships), but they all have strong opinions. As Kelley and Vallee lay out the private and personal struggles that provide the foundation for the more public faces of the series' four central women, we see how easy it is to judge them inappropriately. These bits read like water-cooler gossip, possibly the exact same kind opinionated stances the viewers are taking in their own heads -- by the end, the outsider's opinions are a sly condemnation of the viewer's need to judge and judge harshly, especially as we begin to root for all of them. Vallee also nicely employs a series of similar moments across each episode to help tie the action together. These sorts of pairings help "Lies" feel like the show that best strikes a balance between episodic and ongoing in years, at least at this sort of prestige TV level.
The entire cast is a powerhouse from top to bottom, starting with Witherspoon. The Tracy Flick persona is hard for Witherspoon to shake, even with the occasional Legally Blonde or Sweet Home Alabama on her resume (the less said about Hot Pursuit, the better). Here, she finally gets a role that allows her the opportunity, playing her motherly heartbreak at Abigail's rebellion and her own missed opportunities and mistakes with an incredible amount of compassion. She is supported all the way by Scott, who easily sheds his usual comedic edge to climb up to Witherspoon's level, allowing the show to introduce an infidelity subplot where the audience never doubts their desire to root for things to work out. Woodley has a strong chemistry with Armitage, as her son, and shares one quietly knockout moment confronting Dern that may be the height of the show's subversion of its own image. Finally, Kidman towers above them both, with Celeste's storyline forming the backbone of "Big Little Lies" and the root of the story's perspective and opinion of these women. Without revealing too much, her story is the most harrowing, and the most rooted in that knee-jerk notion of the lies we tell ourselves, which Kidman performs with extraordinary grace. There is a single quibble near the end -- a tying together of two threads that is too convenient -- but it's not enough to blemish the show's unexpectedly compassionate grace.
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