Tracy Flick has grown up and she thinks you’re a c*nt.
Big Little Lies, HBO’s splashy, trashy thriller with a stacked cast of women (Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz) giving explosively fun performances, is a feat if for no other reason than giving Reese Witherspoon the best showcase of her talents since she played the ruthlessly ambitious teen in 1999’s Election.
Two decades, an Oscar, a reign as America’s Sweetheart, and a production company championing female-driven material later, she plays the impressively named Madeline Martha McKenzie, a ferocious master manipulator with far worse things to say about people than the aforementioned c-word.
She’s a Monterey, California, housewife whose venom-dart tongue fires bullseyes on the backs of all the mothers of the first grade class her precocious daughter Chloe attends. That is, all of them save for Kidman’s regal, warm Celeste and Woodley’s anxious, lonely Jane, both whom she guards with more lioness-cub fierceness than even her own kids.
Whether she’s ruling that her ex-husband’s hippie new wife “probably gives mint flavor organic blow jobs” or being self-aware about her hell-hath-no-fury reputation—“I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”—Madeline is a hurricane and a hoot, brought back to earth by the wild complexity Witherspoon gives her.
She’s wily, wanton, and unapologetic one moment, vulnerable and empathetic the next, and through it all jarringly relatable—were we all lucky enough to spew out such David E. Kelley-penned unfiltered arias to express our own frustrations.
But then again, little about Big Little Lies is relatable. Or maybe everything is.
Big Little Lies is the kind of show where women stand in front of windows and stare out at the ocean holding giant glasses of white wine, 20 percent of their free time spent engaging in high-fashion brooding. They are fabulous and they are the worst, and they are amazing television.
Its Monterey community is the hyper-competitive fairyland hell where the elementary school drop-off lane doubles as both the runway for the Best Mom pageant—Best Clothes, Best Kids, and Best Fake Smile competitions all factor into the score—and the battleground for Team Career Woman vs. Team Stay-at-Home Mom.
It’s a land where goodie bags at a child’s birthday party are actually gift baskets, Nicole Kidman is married to Alexander Skarsgard and the flawless couple has breakfast every morning on their wraparound patio that faces the ocean, and a playground misunderstanding in a first grade classroom leads to murder.
Escape for a while into the world of these horrible, vapid people, and let the phenomenal performances by the likes of Kidman, Woodley, Dern, and especially Witherspoon delight and distract you. It’s their respective star turns that keep you from being bored by the otherwise monotonous show—which is a pretty ridiculous detractor for a thriller about a murder.
Big Little Lies is a literal title, about the lies both big and small that people tell others and themselves in order to make them feel complacent or, at least, satisfied in the bubbles they’ve painstakingly enclosed themselves in.
Is your husband abusive, as Kidman’s Celeste wonders, or merely passionate? Can you escape your past, as Woodley’s Jane is desperate to do? Or, in the case of Madeline, might a scorched-earth play at being Queen Bee leave you burnt as well?
The series’ seven episodes kick off with the revelation of a murder at a school fundraiser.
The narrative is then told in flashbacks with behind-the-curtain looks into the sordid lives of the players we’re to assume are somehow involved with the murder, interspersed with community bystanders and gossips being interrogated by detectives—spilling the tea, as it were, about what these women and families were really like.
It’s a rather clever conceit. The catty whisperings of the parents being interviewed, written with the kind of campy glee that Kelley used so well on Ally McBeal and The Practice, offers their judgments on the protagonists.
“She wanted to be Betty Grable. She ended up Betty Crocker,” is one snide take on Madeline. Or the observation that Celeste’s husband is younger than her, so “she must be pretty, you know, in the bedroom.” Then there’s Jane. “Jane just didn’t fit here. Kind of like a dirty old Prius parked outside of Barneys.”
Meanwhile, you’re actually getting to know these women through the flashbacks, getting glimpses at what’s going on behind closed doors or inside their psyches that causes them to outwardly exhibit the behavior that’s being judged.
Because we know something happened at that fundraiser, but not exactly what, and because each parent seems to be racing on a hamster wheel to prove their perfection, the dialogue is dripping with entertaining winks and nods at the audience.
“This is Monterey. We pound each other with nice,” Madeline tells Jane when they first meet. “To death,” Celeste adds. Boom.
Through the detective interviews, we’re eventually given enough information to learn that the murderous incident stems back to orientation day. When the first grade teacher gathers the parents and kids to tell them that the daughter of Laura Dern’s Renata has been strangled by another student, it turns into a bizarre, hard-to-watch hideous public shaming. The girl is asked to point out who did it to her. She points at Jane’s son. He denies it. Some parents, including Madeline, rally in support of Jane, others in support of Renata. The battle lines are drawn.
Over the course of the four episodes that critics were given, not much more is revealed in terms of what happened that day at school or the murder at the fundraiser.
Sure, we venture deeper into these women’s lives, which is fascinating in its own right and raises provocative questions. These are women who have desires, who have hot sex and scary sex and sex that’s used for bargaining and sex that’s used for pleasure. They’re confident and ambitious, and resigned and dissatisfied. They are steadfast in their crusades, but second-guess every move in ways they could never admit.
And they do it all while gliding fabulously through director Jean-Marc Valée’s swoon-worthy shots of Monterey’s opulent seaside life, and with hilarious dialogue that always stops just short of too on-the-nose. (“Women,” Skarsgard’s Perry tells Celeste. “You all want to be the envy of all your friends. But god forbid you garner too much of it.”)
But, again, this is a murder thriller. A murder thriller that, somehow, lacks any suspense.
There’s nothing carrying you from one episode to the next other than the simple pleasure of watching Witherspoon gesticulate with an Olivia Pope-sized glass of red wine while a fire flickers in front of her, tossing her flatiron-straight hair over her shoulder and barking at Laura Dern, “Get laid, bitch!”
Yet for gasp-inducing moments of excitement—be it another brilliant Witherspoon line reading or a steamy Kidman sex scene—there’s a repetitiveness that, much like the crashing ocean waves that soundtracks the show, draws you into a lull.
There’s a murder ostensibly waiting to be solved, but you end up being more concerned with whether Jane’s little boy really was bullying Renata’s little girl. Whether Celeste will leave her abusive husband. Whether Madeline’s community theatre production of Avenue Q will actually go on. (This plot line is ridiculous and it knows it, thereby making it my favorite.)
In some ways Big Little Lies is a modern-day Desperate Housewives. In some ways it’s a more pedigreed and well-executed version of The Slap.
You watch and might live in constant fear that the whole thing is about to devolve into tired clichés about competitive women and restless housewives, which it avoids each time it takes you home with one of them and gives you alone time with her to learn about her complications.
It actually might even be TV’s best rebuttal to those tropes, focusing on characters who are positively liberated by those clichés they unabashedly inhabit and others they throw their middle fingers at.
And Witherspoon? So great at flipping the bird.