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In the picture

Set in idyllic Monterey, Big Little Lies is stitched together by a murder mystery and explores the lives of the strong but flawed women at its heart

In the picture

Big Little Lies***

*ing: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, Zoë Kravitz, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, and Laura Dern

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Created and written by David E. Kelley

Few television shows have a cast that is nearly as star studded as that of Big Little Lies, a mystery drama that is powered by some of Hollywood’s finest acting talent. A dazzlingly impressive ensemble – that includes multiple award winning leading ladies Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern – has been assembled to bring Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel to the small screen in the form of an HBO mini-series.

Set in idyllic Monterey, the female-centric drama is stitched together by a murder mystery and explores the lives of the strong but flawed women at its heart.

Local busybody Madeline (Witherspoon) befriends newcomer Jane (Woodley) when they meet while dropping off their respective kids for the first day of school. Jane is a single mother, while Madeline is married to Ed (Adam Scott), but is still resentful of her first husband Nathan (James Tupper) and his new wife Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz). Her best friend Celeste (Kidman) is a retired lawyer and mother of twins who is married to the possessive Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).

When Madeline’s nemesis Renata’s (Dern) daughter accuses Jane’s son of bullying her, battle lines are quickly drawn and sides picked. The ensuing drama reveals the cracks beneath the seemingly perfect surfaces of these well dressed, gorgeous ladies, as issues like domestic abuse, rape, and infidelity come to the fore, ultimately leading to a murder which is mentioned at the very start of the show, although the identities of both the victim and perpetrator are not revealed till the very end.

It may not be the most novel idea to use a murder mystery as a way of exploring the lives of characters, but (as series like Broadchurch have shown) the concept can yield very compelling results. And Big Little Lies certainly makes the most of its premise, using it to paint a dynamic portrait of complex individuals. The series – which has been created and written by David E. Kelley – skewers the immaculate exterior of the suburban landscape and its inhabitants, bringing out the cattiness of its occupants before settling to revel in their camaraderie.

Cover_06517_2It’s hard not to compare the series to the dramedy Desperate Housewives (2004 – 2012) and David Fincher’s terrific adaptation of Gone Girl (2014), although Lies isn’t as amusing as the former or as deliciously twisted as the latter. What no one can deny, however, is that the series has a more stunning cast than almost anything you can compare it to. The acting across the board is superb, with each player – both the leading women and the supporting men – fitting seamlessly into their well-crafted roles.

But just like the characters it depicts, this seven episode miniseries isn’t a perfect masterpiece. There are times when otherwise interesting participants or their arcs devolve into clichés, and it sometimes feels like the show is a televisual manifestation of a #RichWhitePeopleProblems hashtag. Also, even though the soundtrack is terrific, implausibly pairing the music with the iPod of a six-year-old is just plain distracting. But when the project is so well executed, it is easy to ignore its few missteps and be invested in its forceful drama.

On the whole, this look at upscale suburbia through director Jean-Marc Vallée’s lens presents an interesting deconstruction of an oceanside dreamscape revolving around strong female characters portrayed by an outstanding group of actresses. The central mystery hooks you right from the get go, and even though there are times when the pace is a little slow, the prestige drama is consistently compelling as it tackles difficult issues while exploring the lives of the flawed women of Monterey and the equally (if not more) flawed men in their lives.

 

Rating system:  *Not on your life     ** Hardly worth the bother     ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only     *** Good enough for a look see     *** ½ Recommended viewing     **** Don’t miss it     **** ½ Almost perfect     ***** Perfection

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