Big Little Lies Is All Surprise, No Suspense

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Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. Photo: Hilary Bronwyn/Courtesy of HBO

“I just have a very low tolerance for injustice,” announces Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), one of the heroines of HBO’s Big Little Lies. But “injustice” might be too strong a word in the context of her world, which is so ritzy it makes the milieus of even the more privilege-saturated HBO series (including Girls and Divorce) seem austere. Adapted by David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal) from the novel by Liane Moriarty, this addictive, often corrosively funny social satire and murder mystery is set in Monterey, California, an enclave of rich tech gurus, hedge-fund managers, lawyers, and the like. “Injustice” here is either a political cause that you write tax-deductible checks to solve, or a localized spat between parents projecting their psychological baggage onto their kids, who attend a public-school district so awash in wealth that it might as well be a coalition of private academies. The show’s other three leads — Laura Dern’s queen bee, Renata Klein; Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright, who’s stuck in a passionate but volatile marriage to a domineering stud (Alexander Skarsgård); and Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie Carlson, a much younger woman of color who married Madeline’s ex-­husband, Nathan (James Tupper) — are also obscenely rich but carry themselves with the granola-and-yoga-mat intensity of suburban soccer moms. The only ­working-class regular character is Shailene Woodley’s single mother, Jane Chapman, a wary loner who moved to Monterey with her young son. Except for that pesky killing, the injuries depicted here are of a type you’re more likely to see on a CBS sitcom, but the characters treat them as struggles for the soul of American life and give rousing speeches about the necessity of addressing injuries to themselves and others: say, a fight over the appropriateness of staging Avenue Q at a community theater or a first-grade rift over a birthday party that widens into a feud that Ken Burns could chronicle with handwritten letters and fiddle music.

The latter crisis is sparked when Jane’s boy, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), stands accused of choking Renata’s daughter, Amabella (Ivy George). Because we never see the incident, we don’t know whom to believe. Kelley and series director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) treat the Ziggy-Amabella controversy as a small-stakes version of the show’s season-long murder mystery, a sometimes tantalizing, sometimes exhausting narrative conveyed through police interviews and elliptically edited bits that could be flashbacks or flash-forwards, depending on the context. The cutting, credited to multiple editors, is reminiscent of such scrambled-chronology touchstones as The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Limey. We initially don’t know who died, when, or which person or persons killed them. The community is both appalled and thrilled by the death: During fragmented interviews with a detective played by Merrin Dungey (a nearly wordless character associated with a Zippo that she clinks open and shut but almost never lights), parents and school employees sound like reality-show addicts dissecting a finale in tweets.

The characters’ self-seriousness puts Big Little Lies on the comedy-drama tightrope and gives it a push. It’s not a perfect balancing act, and there are times when the show falls off the wire. The writers and filmmakers are adept at staging moments that respect the characters’ passions while raising an eyebrow at their ridiculousness; but when the show outright mocks them — for instance, ending a spat between Madeline and her current husband, Ed (Adam Scott), by having him turn out the bedroom lights with a clapper — it’s bitchily cathartic but too much. And the repeated shots of waves breaking on beaches might verge on Sundance-style art-house overreach even if the characters didn’t treat them as metaphors. (“Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?” one asks. “The great unknown,” she decides.) Big Little Lies’ storytelling is all about surprise (revealing details through editing) rather than suspense. And while this specific storytelling mode, the extruded whodunit, was introduced to American audiences 20 years ago on Murder One and refined since then (notably on Bloodline and How to Get Away With Murder), it’s been done so often in this binge-watching era that it has lost its capacity for surprise. Plus, there are times when you get so wrapped up in the private despair and public pettiness of Madeline, Renata, Celeste, Jane & Co. that when the series reminds itself to tend to its crime-puzzle elements, it suddenly seems less special.

Big Little Lies is still a must-see because of its extraordinary actors, all of whom bring either new shadings to the sorts of characters they’ve played brilliantly before or show new sides of their talent. Scott is a revelation as Ed Mackenzie, a put-upon nice guy who worries that Madeline’s resentment of her ex-husband might be a coded admission that she still adores him and considers Ed a “consolation prize”; Scott is such an attentive listener that you know what Ed is feeling even when his back is turned. At first, Madeline plays like a grown-up-and-disappointed version of another Witherspoon character, Election’s Tracy Flick — all proclamations and rushing about — but Witherspoon invests her with such coded sadness (always channeled into crusades and can-do passion) that she never becomes a caricature, and once you’re three or four episodes in, you’re rooting for her. Dern’s Renata is a tough-talking lawyer who’s married to a high-powered executive (Jeffrey Nordling) and power-walks around the school with the bone-deep entitlement of a Game of Thrones queen, but in her own mind, she’s a good-hearted ruler who only wants what’s best for her kingdom; that this is always also what Renata wants is, of course, a coincidence. Woodley and Kidman have quieter, subtler roles that are more about hiding than revealing emotion, but they’re as impressive as the others. Only Kravitz’s Bonnie is ill-served at first, deployed mainly as a nice-gal foil for resentful Madeline, but she deepens, too; an early highlight is a sexy dance at a children’s birthday party that she didn’t intend as a sexy dance.

When you think back on the series, though, it may be Kidman whose face you see. A specialist in playing secretly miserable suburban women in a diverse array of movies — including Eyes Wide Shut, Birth, Rabbit Hole, and remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives — she captures hidden anguish so delicately that when she melts onscreen, the show averts your eyes for you, cutting to a wide shot or to another character’s reaction. Midway through episode four is a marriage-counseling session that fixes on Kidman and Skarsgård in a wide shot on a couch. Whether Kidman is talking or listening, she’s the one you look at, because you know her character is going to crack and you’re just waiting for the moment, but her pain is so palpable that it’s hard to take. These shots go on much longer than you expect for a TV series — 45 seconds to a minute — and are so intense that when the show cuts away to a close-up of the therapist (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert), it’s as if you had no idea your head was being held underwater until you were allowed to come up for air.

*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Big Little Lies Is All Surprise, No Suspense