As “Big Little Lies” dazzles you with twisty, dramatic coastlines along the Pacific, it will turn your stomach with its characters’ warped marriages, Zen affectations, and blind privilege. It’s one of the delectable ironies that make this new HBO limited series so smart and addictive. Cinematographer Yves Belanger frames the wealthy world of Monterey like a sunny Vanity Fair spread, bursting with aspirational kitchen accouterments, entrancing views, and closets that look like shoe stores; but in the story that screenwriter David E. Kelley has to tell (based on the novel by Liane Moriarty), the reality defies the perception at every turn. The show is all about how petty social wars and PTA politics can escalate into loud arguments, sneaky dealings, and, yes, murder.
On top of being a satire of filthy rich helicopter parents and the tribulations they transfer onto their children, “Big Little Lies” is a murder mystery.
If the show sounds something like “Desperate Housewives,” it is. But only in outline. The humor is subtler, and, more important, the characters and the acting are significantly more dimensional. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern play the mothers of 7-year-olds who are in the same class, and each actress is a standout. They are women struggling to find purpose and satisfaction despite — and in some cases because of — their cushy lives. And then the rest of the cast is strong, too, including Adam Scott, Alexander Skarsgard, and Jeffrey Nordling as the husbands and including all of the child actors, especially Iain Armitage as Ziggy, the son of Woodley’s character. There are tonal flaws in the show, as it toggles between its playful mystery and the more engaging character drama, but the acting never fails to compel.
We know from the start that someone in the Monterey community has been killed, but we don’t know who. Throughout the series, director Jean-Marc Vallee occasionally flashes forward to post-murder police interviews with various locals, who serve as a sometimes-wry chorus, to tease us with clues. It’s a distracting narrative technique, but it nonetheless adds a needed sense that this vivid cultural portrait is going somewhere.
Witherspoon is at the center as Madeline, who has a teen girl from her first marriage (to James Tupper’s Nathan) and a daughter with her current husband, Scott’s Ed. Like everyone on the show, Witherspoon and Scott play familiar types — she’s a highstrung overachiever, he’s a gentle work-at-home dad, they’re drifting apart in the flow of everyday life — but then deepen them as the story develops. You think you know these people right away, until the actors, with the help of Kelley’s nicely detailed script, take us behind their masks. Each of the adults has an unexpected side, even Dern’s Renata, a controlling lawyer who, if Monterey were high school, would be its queen bee. Gradually we see that, despite Madeline’s off-putting control issues, and our familiarity with similar characters Witherspoon has played in the past, Madeline has a sense of justice and a refreshing self-awareness (“I love my grudges,” she says. “I tend to them like little pets.”)
Kidman is remarkable as Celeste, the mother of boy twins, whose husband — Skarsgard’s Perry — is beating her up. It’s a dynamic familiar from shows like “Law & Order: SVU,” as Perry smacks Celeste for an imagined betrayal and Celeste, embarrassed, hides the truth behind their public image of a happy marriage. But the two actors are excellent, Skarsgard for his pathetic bursts of insecurity and Kidman for suppressing her rage to the point where we wait for her to break. At times, even when Kidman’s face is completely still — and not just because of injectables — we can see the volcano bubbling. Woodley is also sympathetic as Jane, the new, financially struggling mother in town, who, like Celeste, is sitting on secrets and, it seems, lies.
The drama begins when Renata’s daughter, Amabella, accuses newcomer Ziggy of choking her. The parents are all over it, insults are hurled, sides are taken, with Madeline firmly on Team Jane and Ziggy. The choking incident leads to another incident, and then another, and it’s both funny and disturbing to watch the parents — notably Madeline and Renata — play out their conflicts through the kids. The passive-aggression and the trivial battles build, and it begins to seem as though any of these characters could wind up being the murderer or the murdered. “Big Little Lies” will move you, and amuse you, all while it keeps you guessing.
BIG LITTLE LIES
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Adam Scott, Alexander Skarsgard, James Tupper, Laura Dern
On: HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.