Big Little Lies

4 out of 5

Created by: David E. Kelly

David E. Kelly; based on a best-selling book: Neither one of these tags are particularly appealing to me to get me to tune into a TV show.  However, after surprisingly enjoying Goliath, Kelly’s previous contribution to the current creator-helmed television landscape, along with the undercurrent of quality the HBO branding suggests, sure: Big Little Lies, why not.  And while the show perhaps exposes its hit-book roots with its slightly manipulative setup, to Kelly’s / the show’s credit – whether this aspect was ported from the source or not – BLL shies away from its initial mystery, once that’s been established, and really focuses on the character dynamics and emotional trials we put ourselves through for the sake of appearances, as blown out of proportion by the affluent group of moms and dads who form our starring roles.  This is a smart play: this is where the deeper drama lies, and not really with the who / what / why of the suspicious-circumstances death that frames the mini-series, and from which we’re flashing back to view the build-up.

And that is Big Little Lies: A network of families juggling their own secrets – amongst themselves, from on another – and the resulting complex tangle that results.  We see how very complicated this is (and how very natural a behavior it is), whether it stems from typical television melodrama like an affair, or the harsher realities of needing to maintain a smiling demeanor when home life is plagued by abuses.  There is some comedy mixed in, mostly from the ironies of double-dealing with people you greet with cheer while hating, but all of this piles up to make the eventual death-to-come – from our outsider perspective – a foregone conclusion.  Which is also why not harping on it too much is for the best; even some last minute reveals come across as logical story extensions and not “twists,” and playing them up too much that way would’ve felt cheap.

That being said, as a large ensemble piece with a lot of complicated inter-relationships, some elements inevitably get shorted.  Laura Dern and husband’s piece of the puzzle feels fairly one dimensional – they’re mostly used as antagonists – despite a fierce performance from Dern, and the various men around Reese Witherspoon all have suggestions of deeper characters but there’s just not time to get there.  There’s also an off kilter ebb and flow to the focus: From afar, chunks of episodes are dedicated to Shailene Woodley, or Witherspoon, or Nicole Kidman, but the show starts with Woodley and clearly wants to root us to her as a POV – she’s the working class mom amongst the elite – and thus it feels like things are spinning their wheels when we step away from her.  But, again, this is really a study of various relationships and their combined dynamic, the show just gives in to some structural tropes that mislead us on that.  I also found Reese’s youngest child’s knack for playing super cool music for our soundtrack rather obnoxious, but I’ll let that slide, ’cause maybe rich kids in Monterey do that.

Series director Jean-Marc Vallée has a compellingly controlled, but relaxed style for Big Little Lies.  The intercutting of visualized thoughts and memories without any dialogue is spectacularly effective, and the diffused cinematography and natural seeming lighting create a wonderfully juxtaposing chilled out vibe for the simmering tensions.  The performances are pretty stellar all around, especially Witherspoon’s balance of bubbliness with her tamped-down issues and Kidman’s handling of her precarious relationship with her husband.

Does this convince me to go watch Ally McBeal?  To read the book?  …No on both accounts.  But I have respect for Mr. Kelly’s TV prowess, and Big Little Lies continues to show, post-Goliath, his ability to helm mature and contemplative content for this current era of television.