“Big Little Lies” may sound like a cute, paradoxical title; something easy to remember, but quick to dismiss once the true lesson of the series hits. But those three little words prove telling — damning, even — after just a few episodes. The lives of three women and their families living in idyllic Monterey, CA, are slowly revealed to be more troubled than their pristine homes and views would suggest. Stress leads to anger and anger turns to danger, all because of the everyday lies we all tell ourselves, each other and, yes, even our children.
Writer David E. Kelly (adapting the book by Liane Moriarty) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild”) use these white lies, guarded secrets, and passive aggressive vendettas to frame a grave, life-changing consequence: murder. Who died and who did it remains unknown (through the four episodes made available to critics), and the storytellers seem ready to hold out for a climactic reveal at or near the end of these eight episodes. But the wait is made deliciously diverting by a talented cast clearly relishing the opportunity to dig into complex, multi-dimensional women eager to break a bubble they refused to admit was trapping them.
What drives the story is the unveiling of truth: yes, the answers behind who did the damning deed and who died, but also the truth buried deep inside people who have come to accept life as it is, rather than what they want it to be. At a time when the world is waking up to harsh realities every morning, seeing personal, non-political self-discoveries is an enriching experience that doubles as escapism. “Big Little Lies” is a series built to be as entertaining as it is enlightening, and they’ve pulled off both feats with great zeal.
Told in flashback via an omniscient perspective but framed by interrogations of otherwise minor characters, “Big Little Lies” starts on Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley). A single mother of one, Jane has just moved to Monterey to find a better life for her son. Whether her own situation improves seems secondary, if that, as Jane is healthily devoted to her child, even if her protective ties are laced with deep-seated personal issues. On Ziggy’s first day of school, Jane meets Madeline McKenzie (Reese Witherspoon), an alpha mom with a daughter in Ziggy’s class and another daughter in high school.
The two quickly bond and form a friendship built on Jane’s early act of kindness later matched by Madeline when an incident at school forces parents to pick sides. Joining them in spirit and for seaside drinks is Madeline’s best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), whose twins are in the same class as Jane and Madeline’s kids. The trio share intimacies with one another, but largely come together to back each other up. Jane is worried about Ziggy fitting in at school. Celeste is struggling with her stay-at-home-mom role, and Madeline, well, Madeline is at the center of everything.
A master manipulator who relishes a showdown, Madeline is like every controlling mama bear you’ve seen prowl the halls of prep school. And yet here, she’s very much her own person. Witherspoon brings a ferocious attitude to the role, providing all the spiteful energy you’d need to believe Madeline would kill if she deemed it necessary or be killed because any one of her enemies could no longer tolerate the queen bee. Still, the story includes many a contemplative moment. We watch Madeline drive down the winding, oceanside highway or stare off her back porch at the vast sea that is her backyard, regularly lost in thought. She’ll break down eventually, giving way to core truths with her husband (Adam Scott, giving a restrained, pathos-filled performance that still sports an edge), just as she’ll burst with emotion when spurred on by her friends.
It’s a precise turn with sharp, informed decisions made time and time again, in a role perfectly built for Witherspoon’s talents. Her co-stars match her high bar without overworking to clear it. Woodley is measured in her emotional output, crossing a wide spectrum but full of youthful purity that perfectly contrasts Madeline’s constant scheming. Kidman, meanwhile, juxtaposes her two selves: She puts forth a serene exterior for her friends that masks a recklessness shown only to her husband (Alexander Skarsgård, turning a two-note character into a man you hate to hold empathy for). The Oscar winner ties them together nicely, especially in later episodes when she’s forced to confront her choices.
Herein lies the true mission behind the limited series: For all the hubbub about murder, “Big Little Lies” is an intricate examination of what women want; from marriage, sex, motherhood, friendship, work — from life in general. By building their captivating individual stories around a development as drastic and tantalizing as murder, the series asks us to imagine how something so small could lead to something so big. Could a little lie, a minor miscommunication, an innocent tiff, lead to death? Some stories are easier to imagine ending in tragedy than others, but Kelly and Vallée treat each woman’s arc with equal weight, demanding we consider their struggle on the same level as their friends’. After all, people don’t have to die for lives to be ruined.
So much of the show’s overall impact will depend on the ending, as whoever winds up dead and whoever killed him or her will force audience to reframe their perspective on these characters. With all murder mysteries, a less than satisfying finale can damn the whole thing to obscurity. But the lessons learned from “Big Little Lies” won’t be as easily shaken. They lie not in discovering the truth, but in searching for it. And this is one damn addictive search.
“Big Little Lies” premieres Sunday, February 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO. New episodes air every Sunday.