Big Little Lies

| August 1, 2017

When Jane (Shailene Woodley; The Decendents) and her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage; Young Sheldon) move to an upper-class oceanside community, they find themselves immediately swept up in the drama that revolves around the mothers of the kids in Ziggy’s class.  Jane immediately befriends Madeline (Reese Witherspoon; Cruel Intentions), who feels she needs to interject her own opinions in every situation she encounters, and Celeste (Nicole Kidman; Rabbit Hole), who is in a complicated relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard; True Blood).  When Ziggy is accused of choking a classmate, her mother Renata (Laura Dern; Jurassic Park) makes it her mission to passive aggressively make Jane and Ziggy feel unwelcome.

That’s a fairly small taste of the needless drama and I haven’t even gotten to the murder.  The interesting thing about Big Little Lies is that the scenes are spliced with police interrogations as they investigate a murder that is going to happen at some point in the future.  We might see a scene between Madeline’s husband Ed (Adam Scott; Parks and Recreation) and her ex-husband Nate (James Tupper) where they’re sub-textually threatening each other and then we’ll cut to an interview with the principal of the school or someone telling us that Nate and Ed hated each other.  To say the gimmick works to occasional effectiveness already feels like an overstatement.  There are a couple of times when the juxtaposition between the present and future creates an intriguing moment of cinema, but mostly the interviews are used to reinforce things that are already in the scene, which is frustrating and feels like the show is talking down to its audience.

The one thing I can’t fault too bad is the various performances.  Some of these characters are deplorable and uncomfortable to watch but that certainly doesn’t make them badly performed.  Laura Dern’s character for example is really over the top and melodramatic, but the way it’s played, I have no problem believing that that is a real person who could exist in the real world.  Madeline’s busy-bodiness is also cringe enducing, but we’ve all known people like that to some degree.  At first I thought Adam Scott was wasted in this role, but as the series goes on he becomes one of the best things about it, and my favorite character is probably Madeline’s precocious first grade daughter Chloe (Darby Camp), who broadcasts her mood at any given moment through music on her iPod.

Nicole Kidman deserves specific recognition too.  Both her and Alexander Skarsgard create a wonderfully complicated relationship in a short period of time on screen.  Some of the interviews talk about how nauseatingly affectionate they are and you quickly realize that that is to compensate for how miserable they occasionally get, but find ways to make it work.  It’s really great, and unlike anything I’ve seen from Kidman in a very long time, maybe ever.

The one weak link to me is Shailene Woodley, who I’ve just never thought was a very strong actor and brings very little to her performance here.  This could be that the character isn’t written with enough idiosyncrasy to stand out like the others.  She’s merely an outsider who serves as an analog for the audience getting exposure to this world through her, but I have a hard time investing in what she’s going through because she constantly seems to not care at all or care too much.

Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from HBO.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
Filed in: TV on DVD
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