Small, upper-middle class communities have been in the cross hairs of artists for a very long time. Beginning (perhaps) with such great novels as "Middlemarch" or "Cranford" by way of "Payton Place" and "The Stepford Wives", the provincial suburb way of life with its intricate feuds, seething resentments, and amicable facades has proved a fertile ground for psycho-sociological studies on the nature of human relationships as well as for some gloriously snarky satire. Sadly, one of the latest of them, "Big Little Lies", doesn't have much of either.
Telling the story of three different women living in the same small town on the Californian coast, it is decidedly milquetoast in its approach to a series of subjects better covered by better writers in better films, shows, books etc. Fond memories of "Pleasentville", "Happiness", "Desperate Housewives", and the works of Alexander Payne came flooding by as I watched a series of highly predictable storylines unfold before my eyes.
The show frames itself as a mystery of sorts with a "Damages" style narrative constantly flipping between the future and the present, coyly refusing to tell us who the victim is. However, I'd figured it out before the first episode was through, as I did the identity of Jane's rapist, the reason for Madeline and Ed's lack of sexual charge, and who the mysterious school bully is. This is not because I am an oh-so-clever-boy, but because - as anyone who's ever watched an episode of "Pretty Little Liars" can tell you - this is all kids' stuff. In fact, the only reason I couldn't figure out the identity of the killer is because it is such an enormous cheat. But none of this is the show's biggest problem.
The biggest problem is its downright tragic lack of bite. Despite what its promotion says, "Big Little Lies" is not a thriller, and as such I wouldn't have minded the predictable, cliched story had it had a genuinely ballsy, witty, original approach to it. But by the end of the series I'd seen nothing I hadn't seen a dozen times before. In fact, the whole procession has a distractingly shiny veneer of mediocrity to it. Despite quite a lot of promising elements (such as the two-faced Greek chorus of other suburbanites) the show has no real edge to it and most of its humour is on the level of a network sitcom. Predictable, coy, and safe. All great satires (listed above) have a strong edge to them, the kind of humour that would immediately insult the person it describes. However, if any of the characters of "Big Little Lies" watched the show I doubt they would even bat an eyelid. Writer David E. Kelly writes every scene with kit gloves and the end result is a series so nice and inoffensive and lacking in satire that it becomes instantly forgettable. Skeletons in the closet have never been so rose-coloured.
Another issue is the fact that nothing really happens in the show until the final 15 minutes. When the series was over and I stopped to think about it all I realised that all of the show's big events happen in parts one and eight with two to seven serving up some good character development but very little else. A good dramatist could have made a tight two-hour movie out of this novel.
Thankfully, the execution is slightly better. First of all, I do have to note that I found director Jean-Marc Vallée's style horrendously distracting. His modernist approach to editing that seems to entail removing any scene in which we actually see a character walk across the room from point A to point B simply made me confused and feel like I was having blackouts. He's also another member of the Luc Besson school of directing which says that your audience will immediately tune out unless you're either moving your camera or cutting rapidly and for no apparent reason.
Never-the-less, the cast is top notch and that's what saves this show. And yes, I mean saves, because for all its faults and flaws, it does boast an impressive cast which is fun to watch. Most of all that's Reese Witherspoon, one of the very best actresses to show up in the 90s. She's been one of my favourite Hollywood stars since her brilliant turn in Alexander Payne's "Election" and this is one of her very best parts. She plays Madeline, the show's neurotic centre. She's like the sun around which all other plots and characters revolve and there's no better actress alive today to play such a role. Witherspoon, with her nervous energy, natural magnetism, and endless with and charm, carries the role (and with the series) with mesmerising ease and grace. She's a joy to watch (as ever) and she's also hilarious to boot. It's a superb performance. Another terrific turn comes from Nicole Kidman, unexpectedly subdued and subtle. Her Hollywood years have almost made me forget how good an actress she really is and she manages to convey a lot with very little playing the abused Celeste. Finally, there's Shailene Woodley, a relative newcomer managing to stay afloat next to two greats with seeming absolute ease. She doesn't dominate the show the way Witherspoon does nor is her performance as impressive as Kidman's, but she does a very commendable and believable job especially in the scenes where she has to fight for her son.
The supporting cast is equally as good led by the always terrific Laura Dern who provides the show with its only remotely satirical performance. She hams it up delightfully as the obnoxious rich bitch Renata Klein. Her scenes with Witherspoon are electric. Also great are Alexander Skarsgård, terrifying and infuriating as Celeste's abusive husband, Adam Scott and Jeffrey Nordling, Madeline's two husbands (one current, one ex, respectively) battling it out for her affection, and P.J. Byrne as the local school's long-suffering principal. Unexpectedly, they also found some wonderful child actors out of which Darby Camp stands out the most as Madeline's precocious daughter. She got most laughs out of me than anyone else.
Overall, the big question after "Big Little Lies" is why does it exist. As it didn't tell me anything new and it wasn't particularly inventive or innovative, the only reason I can think of is that it was made as some sort of a platform for Witherspoon, Kidman, and Woodley to flex their acting muscles. But, if not exactly noble, that's not a bad raison d'être. All three are a joy to watch and hoenstly, I've been hoping for a Reese Witherspoon TV show for ages now, so I'm in. I do wish that the script had that Alexander Payne bite to it, though, because this could have been something truly brilliant. As it stands, it's diverting, fun, and, in the end, thought provoking, but after you're done thinking about all the issues brought up by the show you'll find you've already forgotten about the show itself.
I sought out this production after reading the original book. It's a great production, well acted and filmed throughout, but the final scenes were a confused and re-written truncation of the brilliantly written end to the book. My comments relate therefore to the adaptation from the book to the TV series.The book's stunning sequence of dialogue as the main characters assembled at the school function at the story's conclusion, which so beautifully brought together the various streams of the plot, was left out completely. (This could not have been due to time constraints, as there had been added story lines surrounding the both stage production and the "talent quest" at the school trivia night that did not materially add to the overall story.)The character Abigail's controversial idea for raising money for disadvantaged children was glossed over in the production also, and as such excluded the explanation of how it was foiled by another key character in the story, which in turn contributed to the dramatic conclusion.The production's addition of guns to the story, albeit mostly in people's minds and not used in aggression, added nothing to the overall story.