In the first episode of the HBO limited series “Big Little Lies” (2017), viewers are plunged into the world of affluent parents in Monterey, California. The first episode of the show, which is based on a Liane Moriarty novel of the same name, opens in the aftermath of a homicide. Throughout the episode, police interviews that occur after the murder intertwine with scenes leading up to the crime. In the interviews, secondary characters gossip about the lives of the primary characters. This device works well, as it illustrates the snoopy nature of the wealthy community and gives viewers an intimate portrait of the three protagonists: Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Celeste Wright and Jane Chapman.
Madeline, Celeste and Jane are the mothers of children starting first grade at Pirriwee Public School, which is described as a “private school at a public school price.” Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), the preppy and feisty mother of Chloe Mackenzie and Abigail Carson, is thoroughly involved in the school’s social atmosphere. It seems plausible that Witherspoon was type cast for the role; Madeline is reminiscent of Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde” (2001). Though the role is rather uninspiring in this regard, Witherspoon’s quips and mannerisms are as hilarious as ever.
Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, is the soft-spoken mother of twins Josh and Max. The other characters criticize Celeste’s relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), complaining that the couple exhibits too many public displays of affection. Celeste is also supposedly much older than Perry. This detail seems a little unrealistic, considering that Kidman looks as youthful as Skarsgård and the other female stars on the show.
Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is perhaps the most refreshing figure in the show. Jane is a young single mother who comes from a markedly less affluent background than other parents in the school district. Whereas Celeste and Madeline live in huge houses with elegant balconies overlooking beautiful California scenery, Jane lives in a modest one-bedroom house with her son, Ziggy.
Jane is new to Monterey and the Pirriwee Public School community. During first grade orientation, Madeline takes Jane under her wing. Tensions arise when the parents come to pick up their children. Another student, Amabella Klein, accuses Ziggy of purposefully scratching her neck. Ziggy adamantly denies this, even when Amabella’s mother, Renata, tries to force him to apologize. Madeline jumps to Ziggy’s defense, and it becomes clear that Renata and Madeline have not gotten along in the past.
At the end of the episode, the details of the homicide remain unclear, but the scratches on Amabella’s neck seem to be connected to the murder.
Alongside the larger conflict of the murder, the three protagonists are wrapped up in their own personal problems. Madeline is jealous of the attention that her eldest daughter gives to her ex-husband’s new wife, Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz). Celeste’s marriage may seem perfect and affectionate to an outsider, but a private argument reveals hidden violence and turmoil. Jane is fiercely protective of Ziggy, determined to protect him from punishment for a misdeed he did not commit. These well-constructed mini-conflicts easily get viewers emotionally invested in the show.
The payoff from watching “Big Little Lies” comes from its tiny details. Chloe bears an amusing resemblance to her socialite mother — as a first grader, she already enjoys networking with her peers. “Amabella” is a perfect demonstration of the cringe-worthy names that rich mothers today sometimes bestow upon their children. A fairly typical HBO series, “Big Little Lies” is beautifully filmed, showcasing vivid colors and intriguingly-composed shots.
These small details could make up for the rather generic premise of the show. A slew of crime mysteries with predominantly white casts already exists in the world of television, so it will be interesting to see if “Big Little Lies” brings anything new to the table in future episodes.