Big Little Lies, at first glance, seems to offer an almost voyeuristic view into the lives of the one-percenters. These are the kind of people who build gleaming glass houses on cliffs, and use birthday parties as an excuse to show off their unlimited wealth.
When the show begins, Madeline, Renata and Celeste seem like entitled, polished WASPs. Little in their behaviour suggests that they’d grow into strong, powerful women that they had become by the end of the series.
Indeed, when Jane (the poorest among the lot) gets to meet Madeline, the audience expects a snooty brush off from the latter. Surprisingly enough, Madeline hits it off with Jane, and eventually becomes her fiercest protector.
Based on Liane Moriarty’s best selling novel, the series offers vignettes of life in Otter Bay, Monterey. Predominantly an area populated by the rich, the setting (violent waves, cloudy weather) is a metaphor for the characters’ tumultuous lives.
David Kelley, the showrunner, builds up the characters bit by bit over the first few episodes, only to knock them down to pieces at the end. There’s great emotional upheaval, complex issues at play, and soon, this story of the rich becomes a rooted, deeply insightful look at people and the masks they wear.
The soundtrack includes surprising eclectic choices from artists like Villagers, Michael Kiwanuka and Charles Bradley. The finale is anchored by some amazing Elvis Presley tracks, making the atmosphere eerily intimate, isolated even.
The most interesting thing about Big Little Lies is the way it sets up its characters to be judged. Madeline finds the pushy Renata ‘wanting’ in many aspects. Renata judges Jane, while the Otter Bay public pitch in now and then with catty comments about the four women.
Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, in particular, triggers a lot of back-biting. Her decision to mimic Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany is considered risque and inappropriate by the rest.
Though the series gives off a light vibe, it is anchored by the physical, emotional abuse Celeste suffers at the hands of her husband. Nicole Kidman is brilliant as a woman caught under the spell of a dynamic and extremely manipulative man. His abusive tendencies pass on to his son and only then, does Celeste chooses to run away.
The series is centered around the lives and loves of Celeste, Jane and Madeline. But, towards the end, it does grow a bit to fit Bonnie and Renata. At first, these two also take on stereotypical traits. Bonnie is the young, hot second wife while Renata is the pushy control freak. But, Kelley gives these characters enough layers that by the finale, they seem more flesh and blood.
With award-worthy performances from Reese, Nicole, and actor Robin Weigert (who plays counselor Dr Reisman), Big Little Lies is the surprise series of the year. At a time when much of television is dominated by dragons, surgeons and crisis consultants, it is indeed a gamble to focus on mothers and the kind of ‘serious mothering’ they do these days. For Kelley and co though, it is a gamble that seems to have paid off.