In a podcast a couple of weeks back, we gushed quite a bit about HBO’s new mini-series Big Little Lies, based on the Liane Moriarty book and starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley, but since we plan on covering this episodically, we figured we’d reiterate some points now that every single one of you took our suggestion to watch the first episode, which aired last night, to heart.
Because you did, right?
Tsk. Well. Allow us to re-gush. Essentially, it’s a classic upper-class potboiler about wealthy (mostly) white women with grudges to bear and both too much time and too much money on their hands to enact their petty revenges. Except we learn from the opening scenes that whatever these revenges may be, they’re not, apparently, all that petty. Murder has rocked the simmering community of Monterey and the series is going to take a good long while before it lets you know not only whodunnit, but who-it-was-done-to.
Admittedly, this description doesn’t really sound like the freshest take or even like anything approaching prestige television. And it’s possible that in lesser hands, this somewhat basic story of mommy wars gone bad could have been relegated to the Lifetime Movie of the Week genre. But the script, by Moriarty and David E. Kelley, is smartly written, the direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, is cinematic in style, and the performances are some of the best work we’ve seen from these actresses – many of whom have long rosters of very good work behind them.
Really, it’s that latter point that sells the whole thing to us. All of the cast members are doing good work here, but Witherspoon, Kidman and Dern are knocking it out of the park, so to speak. Without taking anything away from their considerable skills, part of the perfection of their performances comes down to the perfection of their casting. Witherspoon as the tightly-clenched Queen Bee, Kidman as the ethereal beauty with secrets and Dern as the rigid (but inadvertently hilarious) over-achiever. You’d almost believe these roles were written specifically for these actresses. In some cases, it almost feels like the characters were inspired by the women playing them, especially Reese’s mommy-blogger level of social mania and mean-girl-ism and Kidman’s “A-list, beautiful married couple with secrets” storyline.
Then again, all the women seem to have secrets of some sort or another. “Women with Secrets” is practically its own sub-genre of melodrama, but part of what elevates this is the well-defined characters, who are both instantly likable and unlikable upon their introduction. There’s Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha McKenzie who would rather totter around on 4-inch stilletos with a twisted ankle than risk not accentuating her calves in public and whose dinnertime is a listing of grudges and grievances of the day to her captive family. There’s Kidman’s beautiful, whispery Celeste, with the perfect husband and perfect children, obsessing over which pictures of the latter to upload to facebook, flinching every time her perfect husband touches her. There’s Renata, obsessively chewing over her own unlikability like a piece of bitter meat. In between all the grudge-reviewing and obsessing, there are some things being said about the expectations put on women and the expectations women put on themselves. There’s also a tip of the hat to issues like female aging, spousal abuse, and at least a slight hint of sexual assault that hasn’t been confirmed yet. While there might have been an opening to have some points made about race – the Greek Chorus of parents giving witness statements indicates this community is diverse, but the main core of women are fiercely white and openly hostile to the only main character of color, played by Zoe Kravitz – the show doesn’t seem particularly interested in going there yet.
And yes, there are some shallow reasons for tuning in. We, for our parts, are costume queens, so we’re having great fun breaking down the different ways the characters are defined by their clothing – and will have a post or two examining that after a few episodes have aired. But if the clothes don’t do it for you, maybe the sets and art direction will. Let’s face it: this is real estate porn. You’re treated to a succession of eye-popping Architectural Digest-worthy beachfront homes for almost all of the main characters but each house works to tell you so much about each character, from Madeline’s expansive, white-surfaced mommy-blogger-style house, to Celeste’s woodsy, secretive, candlelit house, to Renata’s ice cold beach castle and even Janet’s run-down, torn-screen-door, working class shack. Everything has been thought out to form a real community with real people who just happen to speak in rapid-fire razor-sharp dialogue. And that combination of high-quality work surrounding a slightly dishy, soapy, and even vaguely satirical plotline is what’s making this show so much fun for us right out of the gate.
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