DVD Review– Big Little Lies
Based on the book by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies is a mystery with a twist. The viewer is informed that there has been a violent death at a school Trivia Night fundraiser, but the identities of both the killer and the victim are kept hidden until the final minutes of the miniseries.
In clumsier hands, it would just be a gimmick, but Big Little Lies understands the genre very well and paces itself carefully, building gradually to a slow boil and placing particular emphasis on characterization. Much of the intrigue from the show comes from picking out the pairs of potential murderer/victim couples. By the final episode, it becomes increasingly likely to the perceptive viewer that one character is almost certainly going to fill the role of either killer or corpse, and the result will hinge on the tone the ending intends to take.
The story centers around three very different mothers whose children all attend the same kindergarten. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) runs her local community theater and raises her young daughter and her teenaged daughter with the help of her second husband, Ed (Adam Scott). Madeline’s relationship with Nathan (James Tupper), her ex-husband and father of her elder daughter, and his new wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is rocky, and Ed is continually threatened by his belief that his wife isn’t over her feelings for her ex. Madeline is locked in a feud with Renata (Laura Dern), an immensely successful businesswoman. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is Madeline’s best friend, a former lawyer and mother to twin boys. Celeste is married to Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a businessman who travels often. Rounding out the trio is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mother and one of the few characters who isn’t living in the lap of luxury.
The fact that all of their lives are less perfect than first impressions would indicate is a given. In fact, the dysfunction is obvious from the get-go. But the story isn’t a trite, overdone attack on suburbia and the privileged but rather an illustration about how lies and sins and fear can ruin people’s lives. I had no knowledge of the plot or characters before I started watching, but the nanosecond one character appeared on screen, I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure that guy’s going to turn out to be a spousal abuser.” Remarkably quickly, my worst suspicions were confirmed.
Interestingly, there are two additional mysteries besides the Trivia Night slaying. By the third episode, it’s revealed that Jane was brutally raped, and her son, Ziggy, is the product of that horrific crime. This backstory adds an additional level of suspicion when Jane’s son is accused of attacking a young classmate, and the mothers have to figure out if Ziggy is indeed guilty, or if he’s being framed.
A devoted mystery fan will catch the tropes and deliberate misdirection that have been carefully laid out throughout the miniseries. David E. Kelley has crafted some of his best work in this adaptation, though the excesses and editorializing that damaged his earlier legal dramas break through in the only two scenes of the show that are temporarily marred by arch artificiality: where Celeste briefly steps out of retirement from the law, and where Madeline deals with her elder daughter’s attempt to save the world through pure stupidity. The motive behind one mystery requires some significant reading between the lines, but it makes a lot of sense once you view the actions of the characters with a more critical eye. The intelligent viewer will make an inductive leap about Jane’s rapist early on—and be right—and therefore determine the villain through a simple process of elimination over the course of the series. Viewers also should not fast-forward through the opening credits. There are at least three subtle clues there.
The one aspect of the show that irks me is the category fraud for awards purposes. Big Little Lies cleaned up in the TV Limited Series Emmy categories, but there is a rule saying that shows that run for multiple series using the same characters must run in the Drama Series category. As soon as the Emmy wins were securely in the bank, Big Little Lies announced a forthcoming second season. I look forward to Season Two, but I can’t help but feel disappointed in the fudging in order to increase the odds of taking home hardware.
The cast is quite good, but the best aspect of the series is that all of the actors work so well together and make their characters’ emotions believable. Big Little Lies is a terrific ensemble piece.
Big Little Lies