Parents of troubled children will tell you that they often hold their breath. A lot. Waiting for “the call.” Waiting for the looks from daycare/school employees. Waiting for a parent to accost you in the parking lot. I know it all too well. I’ve been there with my son, formerly a biter. He grew out of it fairly quickly. Different story for his parents. That connection propelled me through Liane Moriarity’s 2014 breezy novel Big Little Lies and, now, the HBO-pedigreed limited series adaptation from Jean-Marc Vallée. I liked the novel, flaws and all, but I loved the adaptation, a textbook example of how to expand and deepen the world of a beach-read novel without compromising its integrity.
Big Little Lies stars Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, an opinionated firecracker of a mother who never backs down from a fight. Nicole Kidman plays Celeste, her impossibly rich and beautiful best friend with (naturally) a dark secret. Shailene Woodley rounds out the main trio as Jane. She’s a single mother new to Monterey whose son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) may or may not have strangled Amabella, the daughter of power mom Renata (Laura Dern, an Emmy-worthy scene stealer for sure). The central story gradually reveals itself over the course of the series through the gossipy voices of other parents, a Greek chorus of sorts. There’s a Desperate Housewives-y murder at an “Audrey and Elvis” school fundraiser, but the series smartly focuses on relationships over the whodunnit. Think True Detective for the soccer mom set.
Swift pacing and entertaining set pieces elevated Moriarity’s novel above its occasionally one-note characterizations, my major issue with it. In the series, writer David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, Ally McBeal) takes the novel’s events and smartly creates subtext. Working extraordinarily well with Vallée, Kelley gives the actresses meaty material on which to feast. Witherspoon’s Madeline rages both beneath the surface and openly, publicly – raging against her growing children, her ex-husband, and her sense that life is moving too quickly. Woodley’s Jane fears the world thanks to a bad one-night stand which resulted in her biggest joy, her son. She’s a brittle, isolated woman unable to trust.
The most intriguing evolution from page to screen centers around Kidman’s Celeste. Married to the good looking, wealthy Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), Celeste finds herself attracted to and repulsed by their toxic, abusive marriage. Perry’s unconfined anger results in bruises and in hot, dirty sex. Celeste’s shame in both deepens the material in fascinating ways. The book’s Celeste was defined by her abusive marriage, but, in the series, Celeste feels torn between the idyllic family and real danger. Kidman’s scenes in marital counseling provide some of the best acting she’s ever done with Skarsgard going toe-to-toe.
Vallée frames his actresses in and around as much glass as possible. Glass houses on the beach. Glass windows in cars and glass iPhone surfaces. You have the sense that, if anyone breathed too hard, everything would shatter. These characters fight against the seemingly perfect trappings of their high class surroundings. That theme is a bit of a cliche, of course, but it still works incredibly well here. You simply have to understand the environment – one where a birthday party omission is akin to a horse’s head in the bed. Yes, these are white, privileged families, but they still have stories to tell. Their kitchens may be better than ours, but, at the end of the day, we all face the same central issues with life, love, families, and the safety of our children.
Big Little Lies ultimately feels like an incredibly well made, thematically rich throwback to old ABC miniseries. You could ignore it or dismiss it as too white bread for your time. Doing so would mean you’re missing some of the best acting on television this year. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are revelations in their roles, digging into the nuances like the great actresses they are. And I will never ignore a Laura Dern performance after HBO’s great Enlightened. The men turn in strong performances as well with Skarsgard shading the abusive Perry to shockingly good effect and Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) makes Madeline’s doormat husband Ed a soulfully supportive presence, haunted by the insecurity he feels against his wild wife.
I love Big Little Lies because it balances the bitchy, big moments with gentle moments of real contemplation. Thank Vallée and Kelley for breathing much needed nuance into Moriarity’s robust story. There may be better limited series this year, but there likely won’t be as grand an entertainment that literally delivers on all fronts. It’s a dark little gem that digs much farther beneath its glassy surface than you’d ever imagine it would.
Big Little Lies premieres Sunday, February 19, at 9pm ET.