TV Review – Big Little Lies
The 69th Primetime Emmy nominations were announced on July 13. HBO leads all the networks with a total of 110 nods. This show is one of the reasons why. It received 16 nominations, including four for its actresses, two for its writing and directing and one for Outstanding Limited Series. Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, it was adapted by 10-time Emmy winner, David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal and L.A. Law). All the episodes were directed by Oscar nominee, Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild). The story focuses on the relationships between five women who are all mothers of various types and ages who live in the affluent community of Monterey, California, which is along the state’s central coast. It brilliantly explores the violence both physical and sexual against women and how that violence, even though unseen can have an effect or possibly be passed on to their children.
Reese Witherspoon (Wild and Walk the Line) stars as Madeline Mackenzie, the mother of two daughters by two different fathers. Her eldest daughter is a teenager named Abigail who is likely a junior or senior in high school. Abigail’s father is Nathan Carlson, the ex-husband. Madeline’s youngest daughter is a first-grader named Chloe who is only six-years-old. Chloe’s father is Ed Mackenzie, the current husband.
Madeline doesn’t have a career, not currently. Her job is being a mother and she is hyper-focused on her kids, so much so she gets bothered when Abigail starts to be influenced by her stepmother, Bonnie Carlson, played by Zoë Kravitz (Mad Max: Fury Road and Dope). Madeline gets jealous. Ed, played by Adam Scott (Party Down and Parks and Recreation), thinks her jealousy is about her wanting to be with her ex, Nathan. Ed thinks Madeline still has feelings for Nathan. Nathan walked out on Madeline and Ed thinks he’s a consolation prize. Madeline though feels Abigail wants to be with Bonnie who is younger than Madeline and who might be more hip and cool.
Nicole Kidman (The Hours and Moulin Rouge!) also stars as Celeste Wright, a retired lawyer and mother to twins, Max and Josh who are also first-graders. She’s married to an abusive businessman named Perry Wright, played by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood and Generation Kill). He has an uncontrollable temper, which he recognizes, but he cannot stop. It also is fuel for their fiery sex life. He’s playful with his kids and is seemingly a good father, but he has this dark and violent streak, which he unleashes on Celeste. She and he try to hide it from the twins though.
Shailene Woodley (The Descendants and The Fault in Our Stars) co-stars as Jane Chapman, the youngest mother of the group. She’s capable of accounting or bookkeeping work. She’s moved to Monterey from Santa Cruz, which is also along the coast about a hour north. Her son is Ziggy, played by Iain Armitage, the most adorable and sweetest, little boy on planet Earth. He’s smart and talented, having the ability to dance and play guitar.
This series does have the structure and somewhat feel of something like Showtime’s The Affair where one assumes it’s all about a murder mystery, but things really kick off when a little girl named Amabella accuses Ziggy of attacking her. Ziggy denies it, but Amabella’s mother is Renata Klein, played by Laura Dern (Wild and The Fault in Our Stars), and Renata simply does not want to overlook or dismiss this. It’s reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) but done a million times better. It’s a lot funnier. The interviews weaved-in are like in Richard Linklater’s Bernie but done more for comedic effect. It’s also a better interpretation of the NBC series The Slap.
In Carnage, the premise is very similar. The difference is the fight is between two boys. The two sets of parents then meet to discuss the violence between their sons. In Carnage, there is no mystery. The parents know who was involved. There is an argument over responsibility but it’s more or less a bridge to exposing the issues between the adults and how despite their age they can be just as bickering as their children, if not worse. In The Slap, it’s not totally the same but essentially a fight between children devolves into a fight between the adults, which exposes issues like racism and classism.
This series is working on that same level. It uses a violent act among children like bullying to expose what could be seen as violence among the adults. Some times it’s physical violence. Other times, it’s emotional violence, and yes, that includes things like racism. Unlike Carnage or The Slap, which doesn’t really have the little children much as characters, this series makes more use of the little children, particularly Ziggy and the twins, in order to draw clearer lines about learned behavior and how things that adults do, despite efforts to hide it, can affect their children.
The material here is a tad bit heavier because bubbling underneath are serious conflicts like domestic abuse and rape, which this series isn’t shy about depicting. That being said, this series is hilarious in various ways, and everyone involved in this series does understand the importance of balance. There is a light side and a heavy side. This show has great comedy as we see a war break out over a birthday party. It’s silly but unfurls so many serious layers.
The use of songs in this series is also incredible. Kelley always had good song choices for his series Ally McBeal and somehow, he brings that same great ability to this. Whether it was a new artist like Leon Bridges, an old artist like Neil Young, or whether it was “Papa Was a Rollin Stone” by The Temptations, this series has great music cues.
The performances are all fantastic. Kelley’s writing is spot-on. Vallée’s direction works well. There is not a false move here and regardless of how it’s defined, it is one of the best TV series of 2017 and hopefully a multiple Emmy winner come Sunday, September 17.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 7 eps.