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A Look at ‘Big Little Lies’

Playground Becomes Battleground in HBO’s Limited Series


With deserved hype and promotional preamble to pave the way, Big Little Lies — featuring the powerhouse triumvirate of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley — hit the HBO ground running with last Sunday’s teasingly enticing opening episode. As an early field report, at least for this viewer, the seven-episode “limited series” has already earned that golden ticket in the serialization game: The hook is in, and the game is on.

Based on the book by Liane Moriarty, the show is an artfully conjured melodramatic maze on the general theme of elementary-school dynamics in Monterey, teeming with backbiting and the heightened ambition of contemporary goal-lusty and college-track-minded parenting, with presumably innocent young children caught in the cross fire. Catty parents, ostracized children, and paranoid suspicions abound, and as more than one parent exclaims when recounting the dirty deeds and sentiments leading up to the story’s mystery catastrophe, “The battle lines were drawn …” This playground-as-battleground scenario manages to be both true to life and a theatrical conceit, with at least slightly guilty-pleasurable entertainment values in the margins.

To twist a phrase, the new show follows a “big/little”-screen dichotomy (if it even qualifies as a dichotomy anymore) as yet another entry in the continuing and evolving saga of cinematic values and artists moving fluidly from one medium to the other. Witherspoon, Kidman, and Woodley (of The Divergent sci-fi survivalist series and Snowden fame) are most familiar to us from our trips to the “real” movieplex, and Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée comes to the television landscape with the imprimatur and cinematic sensibilities of having directed Dallas Buyer’s Club and Wild (a showpiece for Witherspoon).

From a different angle, the projects’ creator and first episode writer David E. Kelley, by counter-directional contrast, is a veteran of the TV slipstream, with a show-ography including The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, and Boston Legal, who, in this case, flexes his vision into a more cinematic canvas. Part of that process involves relying on his skill with story structures based on multiple storylines and characters, but compressed into the tighter framework of a limited seven-episode series, which could be viewed as a seven-hour film (much as the recent TV winner, Goliath, was an eight-hour, eight-episode drama of criminal intrigue and corporate malfeasance).

Big Little Lies, as craftily conveyed and telegraphed in last Sunday’s debut episodes, layers in the added, inside-out, mixed chronology tactic of a story with knotty, Rashomon-like maze of angles on what happened and by whom, as well as speculations on the why of it all. So what did happen? We’re not sure yet, but the cryptic crime scene setting of the opening and the pithy title of the episode fills us in on at least one discernible fact: “Somebody’s Dead.”

At the risk of over-playing the TV-versus-cinema cultural face-off, Big Little Lies runs deliciously counter to the generally more one-dimensional nature of television, with its various attitudes and serio-comic airs. The blunt force of the episode’s title, for instance, also serves as a winking suggestion that however dark the proceedings might get, there are blackly comic touches lining the way, in a way not unrelated to the mystery death in David Lynch’s alt-classic Twin Peaks (who did kill Laura Palmer?).

Last Sunday’s episode, “Serious Mothering,” extended the continuing saga of the perils of parenting, and the twisted fighting/carnal patterns of Kidman and her volatile husband (Alexander Skarsgård) further suggest that all is not pacific in Monterey (lending a taste of what we endured via the tawdry Santa Barbara soap opera).

As we’re led into the labyrinthine cast of characters making up the show, the sum effect is a kind of mesmerizing mosaic on terms at once realistic, soap operatic, and atmospheric, coated with the kind of textured visual and narrative scheming we used to expect only in darkened theaters. Yes, somebody’s dead, and something is alive and luring us back for more.

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