SHOWS THAT SELL themselves on their cast can sometimes be all surface, no substance. And when you read the cast list for Big Little Lies – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, Zoe Saldana, Laura Dern – you could be forgiven if that alarm started to ring.
But getting a cast THAT good to commit must mean they all saw something worth working on. And Big Little Lies might just be the best new show that nobody seems to be watching.
Woodley plays Jane, a new addition to the rich and affluent town of Monterey in California, a single mother with a shy son. She’s soon befriended by Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), an uptight but well-meaning power-mom, who is married to Ed (Adam Scott). Madeline introduces Jane to her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who is married to Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). And soon the three mothers become best friends.
When a possible misunderstanding on the first day of school causes Renata (Laura Dern), one of the richest mothers in town, to turn on Jane, her new friends come to her aid, and battle lines are drawn.
But here’s the thing: throughout all these introductions, we see flash-forwards to the townsfolk being interviewed by police in the wake of a murder. We’re never told who has been killed, or who has done the killing. And thus begins the mystery at the heart of the show.
Initially, the identity of the future victim appears obvious. But episode by episode, things become muddier as we’re shown more and more of the private lives of these apparently perfect couples and their perfect families. By episode four or five, literally anyone could be the victim, and anyone could be the perpetrator.
Big Little Lies is a one-off, seven-part mini-series. So you know it has a definite expiration date – but writer David E Kelley (perhaps best known as the creator of Ally McBeal) creates such a great world of female characters in that short time, you’ll barely want to leave.
Plus the entire show is directed by Oscar-nominated Jean-Marc Vallee (the man behind Dallas Buyers Club and Wild), so the entire thing is beautiful to look at, plus he gets some exceptional performances out of his amazing cast.
The actors begin by portraying slight variations on characters we’ve seen them do before – Witherspoon is great as an intelligent loudmouth, Kidman does sexy but brittle to a T, and Woodley does the shy, complicated introvert magnificently – but as the episodes pass, layers begin to come away, and we see that these characters are very far from the familiar types they might initially seem.
Why is Madeline so quick to go on the attack against Renata? What exactly is going on between Celeste and Perry, apparently the happiest couple who ever existed? Is Jane’s son really as sweet and innocent as he is letting on? And why does she sleep with a gun under her pillow?
But we never get caught up in the dramatics for too long. Big Little Lies is often very, very funny, with Kelley whipping out some amazing one-liners for the cast. The perfectly dark comedy that stems from parents trying to live an ultimate version of their lives through their competing children can sometimes feel a little too real… again, in an amazingly humorous way.
Don’t be surprised if this cast is nominated for some major awards when next year’s Golden Globes nominations arrive. Even without knowing which one is about to get bumped off, it is a small bit heartbreaking to think this is the only time we will get to spend with these incredible characters.
Make the most of it while you still can!
So where can I watch it? Big Little Lies is currently airing on Sky Atlantic.