When Big Little Lies premiered about two months ago, I went in excited seeing this all-star cast. Unfortunately, the first episode left me disappointed. This is a show that initially presented itself as being about the moms in Monterey, CA, and their daily Bravo reality TV level drama shown with HBO standard production value. The show is way more heartfelt and touching than that initial image writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée put out.
Big Little Lies is about Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon), an influential mother in the small society of Monterey, CA. She is angered by the site of her ex-husband’s young new wife (played by Zoë Kravitz) especially because she fears to be losing her daughter to her. In addition, there is clearly some unhappiness in her current marriage with Ed (played by Adam Scott). One of Madeline’s best friends is Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman) who is a retired lawyer and also a part of what everyone views to be a perfect relationship with her husband, Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård). Of course, that relationship is nowhere near as perfect as it appears. Jane (played by Shailene Woodley) is a single mother with a clear troubled past involving her son’s father. She just moves into Monterey and on the very first day, her child is accused of attacking another child. That child’s mother is Renata Klein (played by Laura Dern) who has a victim complex as she is one of the few mothers of this close community who is still not only working, but also incredibly successful. Renata, upon finding out what happened to her child, furiously calls for action despite Jane’s son saying he did not do anything. Jane and her child are treated with some animosity after the incident, so Madeline and Celeste take Jane under their wing and the three become friends.
If this doesn’t sound enticing enough for you, Vallée and Kelley seem to realize that could be the case for some, so they decide to open the show with a murder of an unknown character that takes place at the end and then go back and start from the beginning so that if you are ever bored, you have a murder to look forward to.
The trouble between Renata, Jane, and their children is what is initially at the forefront as the significant conflict of the show, but as the show goes on, it becomes more about the individual conflicts of each woman. Therefore, it is no surprise that initially the show seems frivolous, but later on, it makes an impact. The thing is the makers seem to acknowledge the frivolous nature and usually that is a good thing, rather than take a show more seriously than it is. In the first episode, as the show opens with the murder, there are scenes showing interrogations of witnesses throughout the episode. These witnesses are the other members of the community and they have very strong opinions of these characters. As the story progresses, the show keeps interjecting with these witness statements giving their snarky view of the situation. These things have nothing to offer other than to make the show seem like something from ABC Family (I won’t call it by whatever it is called now). I understand the point is to sort of poke fun at the ridiculous nature at some of the drama, but that is already evident without these self-parody sequences.
The more problematic thing is they keep doing this as the show gets more serious and goes deeper into exploring these characters. They don’t do it as much as they do initially, but they do more than they should. Despite this, the show still shines. Madeline and Jane are two of the main protagonists and they are both given their proper due. Although the show does get a bit repetitive in showing Jane’s PTSD, it still works and even the conflict with her son grows to be just as impactful of a storyline. Madeline is a tailor-made character for Reese Witherspoon and she does some of her finest work. Technically, Madeline is not as emotionally involved in the central conflict as the other characters. She is only involved because as others in the show point out, she gets in everyone’s business. Despite this, her character never feels out of place. She easily has the show’s most hilarious moments as well as some of the show’s more poignant moments. Her dynamic with her husband Ed is one of the more interesting layers to the show, but strangely, the writers left it a bit unresolved.
One of the show’s biggest strengths is how it treats Renata Klein. She could have easily been a villain in this show and for a certain stretch, she is. However, Laura Dern and David E. Kelley make sure that we sympathize with her. Her actions are all completely understandable and I am glad she gets the proper closure she needs at the end. Bonnie, the new wife that Madeline is threatened by, is well portrayed by Zoë Kravitz, but she does feel slightly underdeveloped. I don’t say this because of the (minor spoiler) major part she plays in the last episode of the show. However, further developing that character could have made that portion more impactful. For the most part, Bonnie has been portrayed as this young, gorgeous and sort of perfect woman. After reading up, it appears the book also presents another element that was only very subtly hinted at in the show. (spoiler) Bonnie was a victim of some trauma in the past and therefore, in much of the show she tries to diffuse any tense situations between people. Therefore, it makes sense she reacted the way she did in the finale with that context. The show spends too much time portraying Bonnie as this near perfect girl while humanizing the rest of the characters.
The most complicated storyline in Big Little Lies is easily Celeste’s. This was yet another storyline that started off really rough and got better as the show went on. (first episode spoiler) Celeste is in a very abusive relationship and that is never an easy thing to portray. They very first indication we get of this in the first episode was comically done. Perhaps it was the acting and maybe the writing didn’t work to it well enough, but it just lacked the seriousness. I initially thought that they were suddenly doing some ridiculous role-play. I attribute this to Alexander Skarsgård’s performance which was clearly off in the beginning. Thankfully though, he comes into his own in this role as the show goes on and becomes menacing. Anytime there is a scene with Perry and Celeste in the later portions of the show, there is immediate dread and fear as to what will set him off. That was quite a turnaround from the beginning with that storyline and the show as a whole.
While Skarsgård’s performance clearly played a role in the improvement in storyline, most of the work came down to just giving Celeste more screen time. The completely uncertain position she is caught in is well depicted. Although the show fails in a couple of other areas, it impressively illustrates Celeste’s journey to coping with the reality of the situation. Major credit is definitely due for Nicole Kidman who works effortlessly in a difficult role. In fact, while the writing has been decent throughout, it is that wonderful cast that makes the show. Every single actor brings their A game during the show’s vital moments and pick up the effort when the writing falters.
Despite all I have said about the writing, David E. Kelley overall has created a good miniseries. He treated most of these women with care and created a proper conclusion to the series. (spoiler) It is an oddly positive ending for a HBO series after a long time, but I felt this show and these characters deserved it. (end spoiler) More than them, these actresses deserved it. There has been talk about another season. I don’t see how they think that is a good idea as they had just enough content for only 7 episodes. I want to add as another positive to Kelley’s account by saying he knew where to end it, but I can’t if they add another season. However, I wouldn’t mind seeing these actresses work together again even if it meant the same characters. They are that good.