It’s crazy how things escalate. In the first episode of “Big Little Lies,” an altercation between two first graders sets in motion tensions that escalate in an unknown death at an Elvis/Audrey Hepburn school fundraiser. Additionally, my tempered excitement went from leaned-in interest to hooting and hollering nonsense.
The above statement isn’t a spoiler. Before we get our first of many shots of Monterey waves crashing, there is a similar bang. Police arrive at a fundraiser, interview witnesses and the title of the episode flashes: “Someone’s Dead.” While much is made of the central mystery, even as no real clues are given, it is a testament to the show that the core four storylines of the episode work on their own.
It all begins when fast talking Mom, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), breaks her heel on the first day of first grade and docile single mother, Jane (Shailene Woodley), helps her out. Jane is new to the area and Madeline is quick to take her under her wing and show her around to the community of Moms, notably her best friend, the idyllic “perfect Mom” Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Once Jane feels comfortable in this new environment, the rug is pulled out from under her when one young girl accuses her son of choking her. Her son, Ziggy, says he didn’t do it. Unfortunately for Jane, the accuser’s mother is Renata (Laura Dern) a high strung, high powered working Mom with a vindictive streak. Seeking a new battle with her archenemy, Madeline comes to Jane’s defense and the battle lines are drawn between Team Madeline and Team Renata.
Lianne Moriarty’s book “Big Little Lies” was more than just pulpy beach fodder, even though it worked so well as just that. True, the story thrives on the petty fights of manners between rich, white women. However, it is best at examining the sinister nature behind all of their feisty zingers. In turning the novel into a miniseries, rather than a movie, director Jean-Marc Vallée has all the time in the world to examine the intricacies and nuances of the levels of these women’s lives. Much like the book, the show peels back the high thread count luxurious curtains of these Monterey women and looks at the ugly consequences their squabbles build up to.
Actor and producer Reese Witherspoon bursts onto the screen in a tornado of words. Madeline is a woman who talks incessantly, but only catches about half the things she says. Words are a way for her to fill dead space, while keeping all eyes on her. What could easily be a one note character in a lesser actress’ hands turns out to be a showstopper for Witherspoon. She hogs the limelight and milks it for what it’s worth. She’s helpful to Jane, because she loves to collect allies.
Madeline’s main source of conflict comes from her perception that her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), is “winning” the divorce. His beautifully zen new, younger wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), also has a daughter in the same class as Madeline’s daughter. On top of that, Madeline’s oldest daughter, Chloe (Darby Camp), is more interested in spending time with Bonnie than Madeline. She takes all this frustration out on her lovably average, yet supportive, husband, Ed (Adam Scott). These are all tricky relationships that are never played at face value. Scott, in particular, really nails this nice man who still is just a bit unsatisfying to the high achieving Madeline.
Our entry point into this world of playdates and sprawling seaside manors is Jane. Woodley does some of the best work of her young career here. She is both in over her head and haunted by her past at every turn. The strongest scenes involve her bond with her son, Ziggy. She trusts him completely, but seems unable to put into words that she is equally as frightened by him. There are secrets in Jane’s past she seems to be running from. However, a fresh start is harder and more exhausting than she initially imagined.
For such a large name, the role of Celeste on first glance might seem too slight for Nicole Kidman. Having read the book, the first episode only hints at the journey her character is about to embark on. Kidman’s internal performance paints a restrained version of the mother that has it all. The most interesting element is her relationship with her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). They are very into public displays of affection and he is much younger than her. He’s great with the kids to boot. However, behind closed doors, their hot affection runs cold with equally fiery results. There’s attraction, but there’s also a lot of fear and anger. It will be interesting to see how this relationship evolves on screen.
For all of Reese’s yammering and Nicole’s subdued beauty, the episode belongs to Laura Dern. As she stands above Monterey in her fabulous mansion, sipping wine and looking down at the world below, she gives a majestic speech. Her Renata has been crossed before, but not again. She brings her sharp business acumen and cutting ambition to every part of her life, including PTA duties. Much as the Grinch looking down on Whoville, Renata looks with contempt at these women who dare to cross her reign of control. It’s great camp, it’s great fun, and most of all, it’s great acting.
Vallée’s miniseries clips along with montage abound. The show may be too soapy for some, but don’t let that fool you. There are many more exciting mysteries to be uncovered as “Big Little Lies” continues.
“Big Little Lies” airs every Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.