Big Little Lies: “Somebody’s Dead” Series Premiere Review

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HBO’s star-studded, suburban mini-series is equal parts intriguing character drama and soapy guilty pleasure.

Desperate Housewives is a show that often gets a bad rep. Yes, the ABC series saw a major dip in quality over the course of its 8 seasons, but when it first premiered it was magic. A story about the deeper secrets of the white picket fence neighbors we think we know so well? Sure, it had been done before, but not with this much of a sly, winking nod.

Housewives immediately comes to mind when watching the premiere of Big Little Lies. Based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel, the story centers on the beach-side town of Monterey. The houses are gorgeous and overlook the Pacific ocean. The people wear huge smiles with their sundresses and designer sunglasses. Everything seems perfect… so, of course, it isn’t.

It would be easy to write off Big Little Lies as the premium cable version of Housewives, but with the ace team that’s behind it, it’s able to elevate itself into something far more interesting. The pilot episode alone displays a knack for walking the tricky tightrope between sharp satire and all-out farce. There’s some real human drama here, but there’s also a knowing wit and a biting sense of humor about the inaneness of “drama” that arises in a town where everyone has everything they need.

“Somebody’s Dead” begins, as its title might suggest, with a murder. We don’t know who has been killed, or how it happened, but we do get a chirpy Greek chorus of witnesses who seem to be more interested in divulging the gossip they know than revealing actual events of the case. The whole thing went down at some sort of school fundraiser with an Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley theme, which, in and of itself, is hilarious.

These are the main tidbits we get regarding the show’s central mystery. Most of the episode tracks back to the school orientation for Monterey’s first graders, which is apparently where everything started. Big Little Lies has a juicy whodunnit at its core, but it’s far more interested in examining the ripple effects that lead to a big explosion than the explosion itself.

Written by TV veteran David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), the premiere follows closely to Moriarty’s original story, save for a few subplots that were likely created to establish additional depth. No mystery is complete without introducing a fascinating cast of characters, and right off the bat we’re introduced to three very interesting key players.

First there’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), who introduces herself as such. She’s a firecracker of a woman who’s over-talkative and nosy, but ultimately means well. She has the unwavering determination of Tracey Flick, and the bubbly spirit of Elle Woods, which of course makes Witherspoon the perfect casting choice. Then there’s Shailene Woodley’s Jane, a young mom who’s new to town and not so quick to open up. Jane is clearly harboring a dark secret, and Woodley plays her anxieties with a subtle unease that feels wholly authentic. Finally, we meet Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful woman who’s life seems idyllic, which means it obviously isn’t. Kidman’s expressive eyes do well to convey a deep-seated fear that’s hiding just beneath the surface.

It would be understandable to roll your eyes at yet another show that features women bickering with each other over trivial issues, and insufferable helicopter parents. The episode’s central incident is about a little girl getting choked by a boy during school orientation, and blaming Jane’s son Ziggy. Obviously, her mother (the always enjoyable Laura Dern) is out for blood, but Celeste and Madeline stick by Jane even though they’ve just met her. It’s this sort of friendship that shows that Big Little Lies can transcend its often soapy genre conventions with nuance and depth.

It also helps that Madeline, Jane, and Celeste are established as fully realized characters by the episode’s end. A scene in which Madeline makes peace with her angsty teenage daughter sweetly embodies her insecurities about her inevitable empty nest. A lighthearted conversation between Celeste and her husband (the magnetic Alexander Skarsgård) quickly becomes tense and hints at some deeper physical abuse. Jane, meanwhile, is haunted by some ominous past demons that are clearly connected to her relocation to Monterey. Each of these women is going through private strife, which makes their interactions with each other all the more captivating.

Having read Moriarty’s novel myself, I’m fully aware of how the show’s whodunnit plays out, and how Madeline, Jane, and Celeste’s friendship evolves. Still, I was incredibly engrossed by the Big Little Lies premiere. Kelley’s writing is quick and clever, and Vallée knows how to frame a beautiful beach town ominously enough that you’re aware of darker proceedings happening behind closed doors. From the get-go, the cast seems to be having a ball. Even smaller players like Adam Scott and Zoë Kravitz create alluring figures in their brief time onscreen.

One of the downfalls of Desperate Housewives was its 22-episode season length. The show had a cast of fascinating characters and a central mystery each year, but it got bogged down in boring subplots that were created to fill time before the “shocking” finale. Big Little Lies seems intent on pulling no such punches. With a tight 7-episode run, this show looks to be presenting a story that’s thrilling, acerbic, and highly addicting. I can hardly wait for next Sunday. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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