HBO's Big Little Lies will hold your attention whether you're looking at the gorgeous ocean cliffs of Monterey Calif. or the non-stop parade of Hollywood's female elite that are almost always on camera. The scenery of the series — from the crashing waves of the Pacific or Reese Witherspoon's trademark chin — is fantastic.
But underneath the glamour of Big Little Lies you'll mostly find a glitzier version of ABC's summer trash Mistresses, which also followed a handful of women in various states of cheating, bonding (and bondage) and — occasionally — bona fide love. That doesn't mean Big Little Lies isn't worth a watch; I devoured all six (out of the miniseries' seven) episodes that HBO made available to critics in two days, and if we're being truthful, used this assignment as an excuse to plow through it as quickly as I did.
Based on the best-selling book by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies focuses on well-to-do moms in the idyllic coastal town of Monterey who clash and snicker and gossip mostly in the pick-up lines of their children's elementary school. Oh, there's a murder mystery at the heart of it, too, told The Affair-style in flash-forwards in such a way that you don't know who got murdered or who did the murdering — you just know someone made someone else dead during the series' climax, a school fundraiser trivia night.
The gimmick then is watching these mommy maniacs and their mostly afterthought husbands boil closer and closer to cold-blooded killing, with new details emerging as the episodes unfold to make an argument for any of the many characters killing any of the other many characters. (You're going to need a lot of string for your conspiracy board to keep things straight.) The flash-forwards include witness testimony from nosey fringe characters, fueling the fires for your theories of whodunnit while also adding sometimes extraneous characterizations of these people you're watching in case you need some handholding.
It's occasionally silly for dramatic purposes — such as when a boy is accused of hurting another student and the teacher demands a confession in the pick-up line when all the students and parents are present; come on, that would never happen — and occasionally deep — the show's most meaningful storyline involves former lawyer Celeste (Nicole Kidman) being a victim of domestic abuse from her aggro husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) — but always tonally scattered given its spectrum of content, which keeps Big Little Lies from being great.
Fortunately, its stellar cast ensures it's never boring. Kidman is remarkable and on her way to an Emmy nomination as the abused Celeste, an older wife who refuses to accept the dangerous situation she's actually in. Witherspoon plays Madeleine, a grown-up version of her breakthrough role of Election's Tracy Flick and a buttoned-up mom who refuses to back down from anything. In contrast to Kidman's plot, Witherspoon is at the center of the show's campy fun, involved in hissing contests over kids' birthday parties and Disney's Frozen on Ice, and she curses a lot and even projectile vomits at one point. Yes, those moments are amazing to see America's sweetheart spew all sorts of things out her mouth. And Shailene Woodley is Jane, a single mom with an angering backstory who just moved to Monterey and befriends Madeleine and Celeste. The show's sunniness can hide behind Jane and Celeste's stories, which frequently venture into darkness and are largely told on their own.
They're all at war with Laura Dern's Renata, a successful businesswoman who never loses, and when her kid gets into it with Jane's kid, the perfectly done hair all but flies and the community becomes fractured — frankly, it's hard to believe it wasn't always that way given how much everyone is up in each others' business.
As for the men, Skaarsgard is downright frightening and uses his intimidating stature and charm to develop Celeste's confusion into something palpable, and James Tupper as Madeleine's ex husband fills the role of mostly clueless stud who's found new love with his current wife (Zoe Kravitz). But Adam Scott as Ed, Madeleine's doting husband — her second — is the real standout here, convincingly playing the overlooked spouse with compassion. His role is more subtle than some of the others in the show, but like Witherspoon, he takes the less juicy stories and elevates them to one of the more interesting and relatable parts of the series.
Big Little Lies — written by David E. Kelley — quickly becomes several stories at once, and probably too many stories when it's at its busiest. Oddly enough, as the show moves on, its focus on the future murder — used to hook people from the get go — slowly dissipates as Big Little Lies continues to throw dramatic tidbits at viewers in the "present" storyline, and as the sixth episode comes to a close, I wondered how Big Little Lies would satisfactorily wrap everything up considering how many loose threads remain before what I imagine will be the big buildup to the murder and hopefully the investigation that follows.
The good news is that these types of shows — salacious sudsers relying on soap-opera reveals — work best in small doses and quickly lose their luster as they try to outdo themselves with ridiculous shocks, and by Episode 6 one tangential storyline involving Madeleine's teen daughter is so preposterous that you'll be happy the show won't last long enough to introduce an evil twin or cliffhanger car crash.
There's a lot of whiplash between the targeted emotions that Big Little Lies tries to convey, but the individual parts work well on their own. It's not the smoothest collection of small-town stories and strong women, but it offers plenty to talk about and familiar faces putting in fantastic performances. And at just seven episodes, it's an easy commitment that'll be easy to knock out.
Big Little Lies premieres Sunday, Feb. 19 at 9/8c on HBO.