Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Elevator pitch: hire five popular actresses stick them in a messed up ultra-elite Cali-bay community and have them duke it out over school plays and interpersonal drama. When I heard about Big Little Lies I couldn’t believe how ridiculously frivolous and thin of a plot the showrunners had to work on, especially when stories exclusively about the super-wealthy could not be less in demand in the current cultural zeitgeist. Having avoided it for this reason for two years, in anticipation of the upcoming second season beginning this Sunday I thought it was high time to delve into the secrets of Monterey Bay. There are not many mini-series that have developed quite the demand this show has for a follow-up. Cliffhanger ending aside this is a complete, full story, that has been the most fun HBO drama in a long while.
The story follows the aftermath of an event that forms anticipation for the finale over the entire series, the explosive conclusion is well worth the boiling tensions throughout the seasons seven episodes. Through flashbacks and testimonial footage with witnesses of the event, the background information and details for this climax are laid bare in the lives of three mothers, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and newcomer Jane (Shailene Woody). All three actresses deliver powerhouse performances, Madeline is Witherspoon’s Election’s Tracy Flick all grown up, divorced, remarried, cheating and alcoholic, always wanting more and doing anything to achieve it. Celeste is the most complicated of the three, she and her husband have a sadomasochistic relationship buried under a fragile, precarious exterior of the casually perfect family. Jane and her son Ziggy are new to the town attempting to establish themselves in a school where the parents can be more ruthless and vile than the children.
The shows more outrageous moments are often induced from lazy writing. The two plot threads that felt truly undercooked were Jane’s shoehorned romance with the barista, who for a show with so many fully-rounded characters is essentially a blank slate for season two, so hopefully his personality is expanded upon later, the other was Madeleine’s daughter selling her virginity online. This massive revelation is treated with a quick solution and acts as little more than a vehicle for Madeleine to confess her guilt to her daughter. There was already so much pressure on Madeleine between her affair, the school play, her daughter moving out, her asshole ex-husband with a gorgeous young wife and new child. This particular storyline felt like a cheap crack by the writers to induce just a hint more spice to the dish; over-seasoned.
While the show does slog on certain points the acting is so consistently great that even the absurd plot elements are completely justified in the faces of these actresses. Even my least favorite scene for example, the divorcee dinner between Madeleine, her husband and her ex-husband with his new wife, is so pointless, every ounce of drama leading up to that event is squeezed to nothing before we even arrive because of the feuding testosterones of the two husbands, they need to fight or make out already, all the delaying felt meandering, hence the writers wedging in the virginity-for-sale story, however, every actor is there. Never once did I have the feeling that anyone was working on autopilot, even in the most melodramatic moments catharsis is reached due to the honesty of each performance. Every actor exudes this feeling of desperate preservation, the characters are just attempting to keep their lives intact and familiar
The show builds to the moment when all the characters watch their lives come crashing down around them and I assume season two will be picking up the pieces of this fallout. Big Little Lies is a fascinating exercise, at every turn the performances make up for any shortcomings on the showrunners behalf. They imbue every one-liner, retort and gasp-worthy discovery with so much character. Even Laura Dern’s hysterical one-percenter is a sympathetic mom in her own right, she wants the best life she can for her child even if it comes at the cost of isolating another child and parent from the group, she spends much of the season overcoming the prejudice of an accusation, the first of the shows potential lies. Nicolas Ray is smiling upon this show right now, his films from the 50’s were obsessed with the hidden, innate violence of human beings. These women do not feel unfamiliar to his Dixon Steele and Johnny Guitar, people who have carefully cultivated their lives around expelling the violent inclinations within them. Big Little Lies argues that this becomes impossible when revenge is drawn into the equation. Violence begets violence, so we tell our children.