First Impressions: HBO’s Big Little Lies is rich, addictive television

Never forgive.  Never forget.

If there’s one mantra the characters of Big Little Lies live by, it’s that.  Shrewdly written by TV veteran David E. Kelly, HBO’s new seven-arc mini-series is a deliciously wicked slice of suburban slaughter where it’s what’s on the outside that matters most.

Based on Australian novelist Liane Moriarty’s best-selling prose, Big Little Lies hooks you from the get-go when the idyllic seaside setting of Monterey in California is rocked by a murder.  As the narrative backtracks to introduce us to the beautifully brutal brood of players involved, it becomes evident that every major character is either the potential victim or suspect; in the four episodes released to media for review, the identities of both have yet to be revealed.

Artificial smirks and passive-aggressive civility run rampant in Monterey, and the real-housewives-in-waiting take the term “helicopter parent” to a new level of extremity; “Fucking kamikazes”, as one neighbourly character so eloquently puts it, seems like a more fitting description.  Said parents include the enviable Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a former high-powered attorney who has given up her practice to play mother to her twin sons; politically correct Renata (Laura Dern), who’s so tightly wound that a moment of self-destruction by the show’s finale feels unavoidable; and “super mother” of sorts Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), bestie to the former and vicious frenemy to the latter, whose supposedly super skills as both a person and a parent leave much to be desired.

Whilst one could never claim Monterey as being a peaceful dwelling, the arrival of single mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) shakes the neighbourhood in a particularly savage fashion.  Battle lines are drawn when, on the first day of school, Jane’s seemingly placid son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is accused of assault at the reluctant finger-pointing of Renata’s daughter (Ivy George); this allegation just one of the many webs Big Little Lies weaves.

It’s amazing how much scandal and secrecy Kelly and director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) manage to juggle amongst the first half of this series – I can’t even fathom how much more can be revealed – and their ability to successfully frame these women, from both a directive and written standpoint, is commendable.  A constant throughout each near-60 minute episode is Kelly’s knack for female-driven dialogue with their offensive comedic sparring softening the oft-tragic circumstances these characters find themselves contending with; Kidman’s abusive marriage to Alexander Skarsgard, abuse that may not entirely be detested on her end, just one of many dirty secrets revealed.

As to be expected from a production so opulently stacked with proven talent, Big Little Lies is practically flawless from an acting perspective with every performer clearly committed to their salacious personas.  Dern aces her character’s mix of genuine bitterness and public distinction, Kidman evokes both sympathy and scorn from a (hopefully) enthralled audience, and Woodley, as the show’s lone outsider (“A dirty old Prius parked outside a Barney’s” as she’s so aptly described by another of Monterey’s upstanding citizens), brings both a delicate vulnerability and a stern sense of self to Jane that it’s when the show focuses on her it feels like we are watching another series entirely.  Without question though, it’s Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie that drives the series, and as much as we know how good she is at playing the snappy overachiever (her demented turn in 1999’s Election comes to mind immediately upon viewing), she is something else entirely here.

Though the eventual murder is alluded to as a violent affair, I don’t imagine anything will cut as deep as the dialogue on hand.  This is poetry at its most ferocious, and though audiences may be surprised at some of the melodrama on hand, there’s no denying at how wicked these overly-constructed scenarios prove to be.  This is rich, addictive television, with the only downside being you have to wait from one week to witness progression.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Big Little Lies will debut on Foxtel’s Showcase from Monday February 20th.