Following recent success with miniseries like “True Detective” and “The Night Of,” HBO’s latest endeavor, “Big Little Lies,” finds deadly excitement in a place you might not expect: motherhood.
Given its focus on the lives of affluent mothers in the dreamlike city of Monterey, California, the show may not seem particularly thrilling, especially when compared to the recent crop of HBO suspense dramas. Fortunately, creator David E. Kelley and his star-studded cast manage to craft a show that thrives because of, and not in spite of, its premise.
Based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 namesake book, “Big Little Lies” examines, in both a satirical and dramatic fashion, how the petty squabbles of the often overbearing but well-intentioned mothers bubble over into murder during their children’s school trivia night.
This miniseries can be considered a murder-mystery, as it opens on the shocking but unseen murder before backpedaling to how it all began. But the show relies on the murder more as foreshadowed tension than it does as a mystery that the audience can actively follow and solve, though there are a few hints sprinkled in.
In this regard, “Big Little Lies” and its reliance on the murder-mystery trope seems somewhat thin and gimmicky, though the desire to have an exciting opening is understandable. Ultimately, the murder takes a backseat to drama in the everyday lives and struggles of these mothers, but these moments are just as thrilling as the murder itself, thanks to the engrossing cast.
Reese Witherspoon stars as the strong-willed Madeline Mackenzie, bringing a ruthless charm that harkens back to her iconic role as Tracy Flick in “Election.” She undercuts her unrelenting, almost robotic demeanor with a certain insecurity that makes her relatable, if not likable.
Nicole Kidman puts her beauty and grace to great use as Celeste Wright, a mother who has a seemingly perfect family and love life. However, beneath the surface and under layers of make-up hiding bruises and scars, Wright struggles with an abusive husband (“True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgard) whose frightening devotion becomes increasingly physical.
Shailene Woodley rounds out the trio of leading ladies as Jane Chapman, a damaged but resilient mother who upon moving to Monterey, finds herself under unfair scrutiny after her son is accused of harming the daughter of Renata Klein, played by Laura Dern, who is perhaps the most overbearing and conniving of all the mothers.
“Big Little Lies” shines in large part because of its darkly comic style, which sees the exploits and power struggles of these mothers told in an almost “Mean Girls”-esque manner. In fact, some of the show’s funniest moments come when the lives of the three mothers are interrupted with flash-forwards to police interviews for the murder, during which the background characters recount the show’s developments as if they were high school gossip. And at times, the children, who are in first grade, appear to have a better grip on reality than their parents do.
Still, the series is more dramatic than comedic, delving into serious issues like spousal abuse, adultery and parenting. Like “The Young Pope,” another recent HBO series, “Big Little Lies” is successful at blending the two genres for the most part.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who helmed the Oscar-winning “Dallas Buyers Club,” the series maintains a cinematic quality as it depicts the mesmerizing California coast. However, the show does indulge itself in artsy, music-accompanied montages a bit more than it probably should. Regardless, “Big Little Lies” is addicting enough to overcome its few faults.
The seven-episode series airs Sundays at 9 p.m., starting on Feb. 19.