HBO’s new California-set murder mystery ‘Big Little Lies’ starts with four major advantages over every other series out there: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley, as fearless a quartet of performers as you’ll find in the English-speaking world. It would have been easy to leave it there, to assume that the pulling-power of these four women would be enough to carry the show through. Luckily, there’s also a sparkling script, inventive direction from ‘Dallas Buyer's Club’ man Jean-Marc Vallée and a brace of magnificent supporting performances.
All four leading ladies play the mothers of kids who go to the same Monterey school: Witherspoon’s Madeline is brittle but well-meaning; Kidman’s Celeste is stuck in an increasingly risky marriage; Woodley’s Jane is a relatively poor newcomer to the area; and Dern’s Renata is their hate-figure, a dedicated career woman who worries she’s pushing everyone around her too hard. As the show opens, someone’s been murdered in the school grounds – we don’t know who or how, and the show flashes back to take us through the weeks leading up to the crime.
Both visually and geographically, ‘Big Little Lies’ feels like a grown-up take on ‘The OC’, another show about beautiful people doing fairly awful things. The focus here is on the parents rather than their offspring, but there's a similar sense of sin in the sun, of gorgeous landscapes and high-style houses forming a backdrop to troubled lives. And there’s a similar sense of spiky fun, too, of soap-opera storylines told with class and intelligence.
But ‘Big Little Lies’ is far more insightful: this isn’t just fizzy entertainment, it’s got serious things to say about parents and children; about rivalry and obsession; about standing out and fitting in; about the places women carve for themselves and the decisions they make. It’s not entirely female-focused – Alexander Skarsgard and Adam Scott both do superb supporting work – but the focus is on mothers and, to a lesser extent, their daughters – there's one scene with Witherspoon and her oldest child at the end of the first episode that manages to be sweet, heartbreaking and weirdly disturbing all at the same time.
When ‘Big Little Lies’ was announced, it seemed impossible that the show could live up to the promise of its extraordinary cast. Turns out there’s nothing to fear: this is every bit as classy, intelligent and enjoyable as it should be. Watch it.
‘Big Little Lies’ starts on Sky Atlantic on Mar 13.
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