The premiere of HBO’s glossy new Sunday fare blatantly tells us just that. The statement doubles as both the first episode’s title, as well as the subject of the seven-part miniseries mystery from writer David E. Kelley. Based on Australian author Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, Big Little Lies capitalizes on the talent of its actors to keep the show from plunging into the trashy airport reads territory where its namesake is best known. It’s safe to say that most of the cable network’s audience would probably tune in for the cast alone. But additionally, this new take on Moriarty’s story seems to strike the right balance between being the prestige event series that HBO is known for, and its original calling as a Desperate Housewives-style domestic mystery.
That’s not to say that Big Little Lies doesn’t employ the typical trappings of HBO programming, including a gorgeous yet haunting title sequence with crashing waves, beautiful women, and beaming children. This is where the show opens, establishing the intriguing and introspective nature of the show. It clues us in to both the independence of each of these women, as well as the fact that they have other people in their lives that lean on them (there is a particular focus on our key characters driving – presumably with their children in the backseat).
There is a gradual transition from this title sequence into the body of the episode. Emergency lights of police cars flash and we are seeing the scene from an unknown perspective, with only the sound of heavy breathing to draw our attention to this fact. Detectives approach and they give us the few details we need to get the plot of this story rolling: somebody’s dead. We don’t know who. For that matter, we don’t even have any identifying factors other than the fact that they were in attendance at a school event that night.
We jump back in time to meet Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) who feels eerily like Elle Woods all grown up – she’s friendly, confident, and slightly snarky. She immediately takes a young single mother, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) under her wing and vows to be her guide through the vicious world of first-grade politics (because who knew such a thing existed). It feels almost impossible not to have your heart warmed by Madeline’s immediate acceptance of the young transplant, whose son Ziggy is similarly led into the pearly white gates of first grade by Madeline’s daughter Chloe. Which, according to Madeline, is like “walking in with the golden ticket.” As the pilot progresses, Jane (to a certain extent) ends up being our eyes in to this new world. As Madeline shows her the ropes, we also learn about this tight knit community, where apparently mothers are divided by the titles of “working” and “non-working” – a line that Madeline and Jane both straddle as mothers who work part-time. But by the time we meet Madeline’s best friend, Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), it’s clear that a new delineation will be born as their bond to bubbly, inclusive, Madeline, joins the three women with their differing backgrounds.
This new bond is tested when “tragedy” strikes during the orientation. Not the murder mystery that the show has adopted as its plot, but the incident (according to other parents) that started it all. And this is where “battle lines are drawn” after the daughter of a working mother, Renata Klein (Laura Dern), is allegedly choked by one of the boys in the class. She immediately fingers Jane’s son Ziggy as the culprit, who swears that he didn’t do it. Chaos erupts and no real solution to the matter is found, leaving Madeline (in Ziggy’s defense) to ask, “Isn’t there due process for a first grader?”
But it’s only after all of this important plot information has been sewn that we get to truly see the heart of this new show. It comes in the quieter moments with the women at home. Madeline, who has had a difficult time connecting with her teenage daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton), breaks down. She finally explains the stress that we’ve seen behind her character’s bubbly personality since the beginning of the episode: “What people don’t tell you is that you lose your children.” Her fear of her children growing up and leaving weighs especially heavy on her as she explains to her husband Ed (a delightful Adam Scott) that she doesn’t feel like she has another chapter after them. Being a mom is her entire universe.
Contrarily, our (so called) villain, Renata contemplates the fact that she is not “liked” while looking out at the stunning ocean view behind her home. She believes that she is being demonized because she is one of the working mothers. Her husband commiserates with her, but also points out the irony of the situation that the mothers of Monterey seem to be living: “You all want to be the envy of your friends, but God forbid you garner too much of it.”
Both Celeste and Jane encounter more adversarial truths at home. Celeste and her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) are clearly in a troubled (and possible abusive) relationship. His temper is a visible issue as it brings him to use force against Celeste. On the other hand, Jane seems to be grappling with a part of her story that we’re not yet privy to. We continue to see flashes of her in a blue dress walking barefoot on a beach. Pieces of a memory that she has yet to share. At home, her relationship with Ziggy feels strained after the incident. Almost as if he has done something before to warrant concern, even if she assures him that she trusts that he didn’t choke his classmate. And in one of the more shocking moments of the pilot, she places a gun under her pillow before going to sleep.
In the end, we get the sense that no matter how much money or pride that these women have, they’re still suffering from their own demons. The surface level picture of “having it all” doesn’t equate to constant happiness, and Big Little Lies seeks to explore the deeper levels of humanity that we don’t often get to see in this context. Sure, over the course of the series we’re bound to find out who’s dead and maybe (if we’re lucky) who’s to blame, but that’s not what the show is about, and those answers aside, the truths that we’ll see told from the perspectives of these women will continue to be the center of this unraveling story.
Images courtesy of HBO