If nothing else, Big Little Lies, HBO’s dive into the "salacious small-town melodrama" genre, captures the loneliness of car rides.
The vehicles are luxurious, sleek, elegant, and expensive. But the wealthy women who drive them always seem isolated. Their children might be having the best time in the back seat, but the mothers are always singularly focused and alone. Yes, that’s because they’re concentrating on the road. But Big Little Lies suggests it’s also because, no matter where these women go or whom they surround themselves with, they’re surprised to find they’re ultimately alone with themselves.
Big Little Lies is being sold on the strength of its all-star cast, and it does, indeed, have an all-star cast. With Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley in the three lead roles and great performers like Adam Scott, Alexander Skarsgård, and Laura Dern in supporting roles, you’re guaranteed to see at least one actor you love. And for the most part, they’re very, very good.
But Big Little Lies also lets those performers down, with simplistic scripts that lack subtext and seem to tread water between big moments. The show feels trapped between something trashy and something more upscale, too scared to move in either direction and ultimately the poorer for it. It’s got Peak TV presentation — the stars, the high-toned direction — and scripts that would fit right in on the ’90s dramas of its writer, David E. Kelley.
Ultimately, it’s a flashy, well-acted show, but often in spite of itself. Here’s what’s good, bad, and weird about Big Little Lies.
Good: the actors are phenomenal
One of the most riveting scenes you’ll see on TV this season is a rather gentle two-hander between Kidman (as lawyer turned stay-at-home mom Celeste Wright) and longtime character actress hero Robin Weigert as her therapist. On paper, not much happens. The therapist is trying to convince Celeste to do something Celeste doesn’t want to do. But to watch Kidman dance around all of Celeste’s layers of self-defense and denial is to be reminded how much an actor can elevate rote material.
This high level of performance echoes throughout every key role in Big Little Lies. Woodley, an actress I’ve rarely warmed to, is great as Jane, a single mother who’s carefully compartmentalized the darkness in her life to keep moving forward. Scott turns his "supportive but kinda dull husband" into something surprisingly moving. And Dern, as always, walks a high wire between camp and despair as a queen bee parent at the upper-class school around which much of the miniseries’ action revolves.
But it’s Witherspoon who shines the brightest, thanks to one simple but bold choice: She dials up her Reese Witherspoon-ness — that brittle, slightly overbearing quality she’s had in all her best roles, stretching back to 1999’s Election — as far as she can, even though everything around her is much more naturalistic and her storyline is the least outwardly salacious. (Her character, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, is just feeling kinda unfulfilled with her life.)
It works because Witherspoon plays Madeline as stuck between the way she thinks the world should work and her utter lack of control over its proceedings. She’s "a Reese Witherspoon character," but one who’s been beaten down by life and responded by becoming flintier and more sharp-edged. She’s genuinely caring and kind sometimes, but she’s also not above waging war with other moms via their young children.
It’s easy to see why so many excellent actors were attracted to Big Little Lies. The show’s inspiration — the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name — offers a bunch of complex, nuanced characters who sit in line in their expensive cars to pick up their kids from school, which is precisely the place nuanced characters usually go to die. And there’s just enough genre fun (would you believe there’s a murder involved?) to keep the story engaging. It’s a pity, then, who’s adapting the book.
Bad: why is David E. Kelley adapting this thing?
Kelley, who was king of television in the ’90s, is an immense talent on occasion, still to this day. But his skills and style best align with series where his characters can offer grand pronouncements about Justice or Life or God, which is why he tends to work best in the courtroom drama genre. (See also: Last year’s Amazon series Goliath, which was his best show in years.)
But the small-town melodrama requires either an extraordinarily deft touch or a willingness to go full bore into camp. It’s easy enough to imagine a version of this series from Parenthood’s Jason Katims that’s tremendous, or a very different version from American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy that’s just as good.
But Kelley awkwardly tries to blend the two tones, resulting in confusing mishmashes where the show cuts from Jane living in her despair to, uh, Madeline imagining being attacked by an enemy who’s wielding puppets and pushing her to her doom.
What Kelley is good at doesn’t particularly match up with either the text or the subtext of Moriarty’s tale, and there were long stretches of each episode (I’ve seen six of seven in total) where I just didn’t buy what any of the characters were saying to each other. Lots of times, they would baldly state what they were thinking or feeling, leaving nothing to the imagination, and even 6-year-old children were often deeply aware of their buried psychological motivations.
The cast’s performances are good enough to compensate for much of this, but it’s still a bummer to get to the end of a juicy scene and have it conclude with dialogue that’s desperate to sum up everything that preceded it. Kelley too often doesn’t trust the viewers to figure stuff out on their own, and that’s the case in Big Little Lies.
Good: Jean-Marc Vallée directed the entire miniseries, and it’s gorgeous
Jean-Marc Vallée, who’s probably best known in the United States for the movies Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, is a director whose charms have mostly eluded me to this point. His films — especially Dallas Buyers Club — rarely feel as if they’ve met a bit of subtext they couldn’t hammer into the text, and he seems to favor broad and showy when small and intimate might be a better tack.
And yet he turns out to be a perfect fit for Big Little Lies, where he uses lots and lots of wide shots filled with negative space to underline the characters’ isolation. Somewhere in the third episode, I realized Vallée was capturing the feeling of loneliness as well as I’ve seen it depicted on television, and so much of that stems from his willingness to feature his actresses in long, wordless sequences where they just live with their pain, all alone. (He’s especially good at this when filming them against the rich interiors of their homes, or the crashing waves of the Monterey Bay shoreline.)
Television also brings out Vallée’s skill with actors, perhaps even more than film does. On TV, Vallée seems careful to modulate more — or he knows that his Wild stars Witherspoon and Dern will always be the biggest presences in any room and adjusts from there — which leads to work that keeps peeling back layers. Vallée intuitively understands that TV performances can rarely start at level 10 and stay at that volume indefinitely (unless you’re Reese Witherspoon, apparently). You need room to grow, and he leaves everybody in Big Little Lies exactly that.
Bad: a flash-forward structure doesn’t work at all
In order to keep watching a drama that’s occasionally as internally focused as Big Little Lies, we need something to pull us forward through the less immediately gripping scenes. In this series, as in so many other small-town melodramas, that "something" is a murder.
Here, it’s a murder that will happen, and the series is occasionally peppered with short flash-forwards of other characters offering their observations on the show’s central ensemble to the police. (I’ve seen six of seven episodes, and I still haven’t seen the murder happen, nor do I know who was murdered — though I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it all out, since Kelley’s not a very subtle writer.) It’s easy to see what’s intended here: We’re meant to speculate about what’s going to happen, and the various witnesses act as a kind of Greek chorus, offering commentary on the action swirling around them.
In practice, it doesn’t work at all. The chorus members keep butting into scenes we’ve just watched to reiterate what we just saw. They’re not there to provide illumination — they’re there to hold our hands and make sure we got it. It’s a bad idea, executed poorly, and these scenes easily could have been cut without losing anything.
The weird: all of the characters seem to share David E. Kelley’s pop culture tastes
Everybody listens to ’60s rock and consumes the sorts of bland movies and TV shows you’d expect a guy in his 60s to be into. This applies even to Woodley’s 20-something and Witherspoon’s show-tune-obsessed character. Hell, this applies to the 6-year-olds.
I mean, sure, this is a rich enclave of mostly white people, who would probably be into this sort of hopelessly middlebrow pop culture, but it’s kinda weird that everybody is into what (I assume) David E. Kelley is into.
Big Little Lies debuts Sunday, February 19, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.