James Cole Clay // Culture Critic
Getting hooked by a TV pilot can be difficult, especially in the case of a mini-series. Characters have to be introduced, developed and plotting has to be put in motion. Even with odds stacked against most shows, HBO has found a way to create limited-run series that have entered the cultural zeitgeist, like THE NIGHT OF and TRUE DETECTIVE.
BIG LITTLE LIES checks all these boxes and then some.
Based on the Australian novel by Lian Moriarty – an admittedly solid airport read that doesn’t rise above the beautifully trashy material – BIG LITTLE LIES adds layers and nuance to the suburban slice of life that the book never could (something you don’t hear every day). Director Jean Marc-Vallee (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, WILD) handles the material with sophistication, using technical tricks that transcend the television medium.
Within the seemingly safe confines of upper crust suburban life is a shark infested elementary school filled with parents and children looking to find any weakness in their peers. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is a dissatisfied mother whose teenage daughter is unappreciative, while her six-year-old is growing up too fast.
Madeline and her best friend and former lawyer Celeste (Nicole Kidman) welcome with open arms a mysterious single mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) and her son Ziggy. The conflict of the show still has yet to unravel; however, an intercut of talking heads reveal a tragic crime is upcoming. What could it be?
Valle’s filmmaking is as good as it has ever been, crosscutting scenes with music and atmospheric shots of the waves crashing along the idyllic shores of Southern California.
Madeline has a rival in hard working mother Renata (Laura Dern, who’s in the middle of a resurgence) whose daughter accuses Ziggy of choking her in front of the entire school on orientation day. There’s a wealth of dramatic heft thrown around on the first episode that taps into what’s going on in American culture today regarding victimhood and women who keep silent due to domestic abuse. It’s only the first episode, so we don’t know who to believe, or where allegiances will lie.
While the show appears to be a deep drama, the performances and casting choices, such as Adam Scott, show that, maybe, the series has its tongue firmly planted in cheek. But these questions are what help make this limited-run series so infectious and exciting. So far, it’s impossible to figure out. But on the surface, we have a, kind of, creepy kid — some stuck-up suburbanites, lots of hurt feelings and oceanfront property.
There are a ton of characters introduced in the pilot of the show, all not fully formed yet. And while there’s faith that stones become unturned, let’s hope that the resolve is as satisfying as the questions.
BIG LITTLE LIES will continue to air on HBO until April 2nd.