Big Little Lies Sundays, 9 p.m., HBO. Premieres February 19.
The characters in the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies are the kind of affluent, attractive, privileged people whose problems can easily seem exasperating and pointless, as they brood inside their giant mansions wearing expensive clothes and eating fancy meals. But the adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel expertly sidesteps those concerns, creating fascinating, flawed, fully realized characters who happen to be wealthy and beautiful. The entire creative team works to bring Moriarty’s book to life, giving careful consideration to each character and allowing the plot to unfold naturally and unhurriedly over the course of seven episodes (six of which were available to review).
That creative team includes stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who are both executive producers and were the driving forces behind getting the adaptation made. Witherspoon gives what might be the best performance of her career as Madeline Mackenzie, an alpha housewife in upper-class Monterey, California, who delights in meddling in other people’s business. (“I love my grudges,” she says cheerfully. “I tend to them like little pets.”) Madeline is pushy and judgmental and domineering, but she’s also smart and loving and fiercely loyal, and Witherspoon finds astounding depths of emotion in Madeline’s efforts to define an identity that isn’t dependent on being a wife (or ex-wife) and mother.
Madeline’s best friends are fellow housewife and former lawyer Celeste Wright (Kidman), married to the handsome but volatile Perry (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) and raising twin boys; and middle-class single mom Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), whose arrival in Monterey sets in motion a series of events that culminate in murder. The show’s first episode reveals that someone has been killed, but neither the victim nor the perpetrator is identified before the finale. The crime casts a shadow over the events leading up to it, giving seemingly mundane interactions an ominous tone. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), who helmed all seven episodes, uses fractured snippets of dreams, flashbacks and flash-forwards to enhance that sense of unease, lending extra weight to the characters’ problems both large and small.
The script by TV veteran David E. Kelley mostly eschews his trademark quippery for more subdued and emotionally probing dialogue, and the cast makes the most of the complex characters. Occasional plot developments come off as forced, but even the unlikeliest turns are grounded in the characters’ shared history and relationships. Based on a book sometimes dismissed as “chick lit,” the show could turn out to be soapy or campy, but instead it demonstrates the power and impact of family, community and friendship, how those bonds are just as meaningful and just as dramatic as any grand political or criminal enterprise. It doesn’t need dragons or mobsters or robots to stand as HBO’s best drama in years.