Spoiler: Scratch at that small town’s godly veneer, and you’ll expose every kind of vice and folly beneath it. That’s been a pop-culture truism since long before Kyle MacLachlan plucked that severed ear from the grass in Blue Velvet or Jeannie C. Riley gave a piece of her mind to the Harper Valley PTA. On serialized television, that scratching starts when a teenager, usually a girl, gets killed or goes missing. Currently, Riverdale exemplifies the genre: Its creators have cast Jughead Jones, the asexual hot-dog omnivore of the Archie comics, as his hometown’s Dominick Dunne, the fascinated chronicler of how a murder investigation strips away a façade of wholesomeness only a sucker would have believed in the first place.
HBO’s incisive, arresting, performance-driven soap Big Little Lies does away with the suckers. Here, the town is its own Jughead, a Greek chorus dishing in montage about how everyone has always known that Monterey, California, was crazy — and that nobody was more crazy than the three well-heeled mothers played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern. For the collective narrator, Monterey’s inevitable murder proves delicious rather than devastating, a culmination of all that’s rotten rather than the first whiff of it.
Though it starts after that murder, Big Little Lies mostly takes place before it, building up to the killing while only teasing at the specifics. It’s less a whodunit than a who-wuz-it-dun-to, with each of the leads a suspect for the role of killer and victim. Madeline, Witherspoon’s type-A troublemaker, can’t go a day without getting into dustups — with her prickish ex-husband (James Tupper), with her sulkily nice current husband (Adam Scott), with the traffic monitors working the elementary-school pick-up line, with Renata, Laura Dern’s character. Renata is the wealthiest of the trio, a consultant for top tech companies who still never misses that pick-up line; in the pilot she rages against the school and other parents when her daughter accuses another first-grader of bullying.
Kidman, meanwhile, enjoys the best showcase she’s had in years for her porcelain might. She plays Celeste, the lawyer BFF of Madeline, a mother taking time off from work to raise the twins she’s had with the brute snake of a husband (Alexander Skarsgård) who has to hit her before he’s turned on enough for sex.
Kidman and Skarsgård’s tense tête-à-têtes are worlds removed from the sexual violence of Game of Thrones, where the showrunners’ interest in the complexities of power within a couple (or a pair of siblings) comes second to their interest in shock. The s/m scenes build out of everyday moments — picking toys off the floor — that Kidman’s character, as terrified of what this man might do next as she is of the possibility of life without him, tries to keep pleasant. Then, often in graceful long takes, his annoyance will boil over into an argument, and then a slap or a shove — which she’ll then reciprocate. Then down come the panties, with viewers left to work out for themselves what’s consensual. Later, he’ll apologize, agree to try therapy, act like nothing unusual has happened.
That’s one pained through-line of the series: women and girls trying to live despite the persistent threat of male violence. Even the “nice” guys prove threatening. The artistic director of the community theater might, with his misplaced passion, destroy Madeline’s life; Madeline’s husband, understandably worried that he’s not perfectly suited to his wife, gives a speech to a rival about how all his life he’s regretted not kicking his childhood bully’s ass. Scott shifts subtly from sweet doof to embittered Napoleon; his character withers at first beneath Witherspoon’s four-alarm furors, and then whets his very meekness to slice her. Witherspoon, it goes without saying, is a marvel, hilarious and exasperating with no hint of exaggeration, her Madeline an all-too-human force of nature.
At the heart of all of this is Jane, a new mom in town played by Shailene Woodley, schlubbed into off-the-rack separates while her co-stars swan their kids to school in couture. It’s Jane’s son Renata’s daughter accuses of choking her on the first day of school. That incident, and Madeline’s steadfast insistence on standing up for the boy, triggers everything that follows, including the murder that the series keeps not quite getting to. Jane wants to believe in her son’s innocence, yet she’s also spooked by his sleepwalking, by his calmness, by the way he came into the world in silence, as if he didn’t want to be born at all. Quick-cut flashbacks and glimpses of dreams clue us in to her secret: His father, a man whose name she doesn’t know, raped her in a motel room. Jane immediately gets befriended by that hellraiser Madeline and the imposing Celeste — and often, touchingly, seems overwhelmed by them. Playing a normal person among the superwomen, Woodley proves adept at showing how Jane tries not to let on about the worries parading behind her eyes. Jane wonders, as she regards her son, whether a boy can become a man worth trusting. By the fifth episode, this mystery seemed more compelling to me than the murder plot.
That murder plot is the spine, though. Throughout the series, and especially in the somewhat underwhelming pilot, Big Little Lies cuts to those interview segments with Monterey residents, their cheery gossip cuing our reactions the way that reality-TV “confessionals” might. “Something’s up with her,” an unnamed local will opine, about whichever of the excellent leads we’ve been watching. “I just don’t know exactly what.” All this pick-a-little/talk-a-little is hokey, especially for a series this smart, and especially once we discover, at the end of the premiere, the in-story source of these comments. These are employees of the local elementary school being quizzed by the cops as part of a murder investigation, a situation that doesn’t actually invite self-regarding cattiness.
The show, created and written by David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, etc.), resembles conventional TV more than most HBO offerings. Many episodes end with a montage, set to wistful music on some character’s iPod, that reminds us of everybody’s current emotional status. Kidman’s knockout scene in the fifth episode, which finds Celeste in a therapy session attempting to deny and then shrug off her husband’s abuse, is flatly presented and cross-cut with less urgent material, an extraordinary performance treated like any other ten-minute stretch of serialized drama.
But Kelley continually pens revelatory scenes for his actresses, who wring them for all the pain and truth they’re worth. The town’s secrets might not jolt you, and the show may disappoint in its final surprises. But seeing these stars lay bare the hearts and fears of these women, in the face of their neighbors’ judgment and the terrors of toxic masculinity, beats all the usual TV mysteries. During the moments that don’t work, why not imagine Witherspoon, Kidman, and Dern all swapping roles and playing each other’s big scenes?
Big Little Lies airs Sundays on HBO.