To a certain extent, the idea of having great female-lead TV has remained pigeonholed to network dramas or comedies. To dive into the extended world of prestige TV is to notice that it's still dominated by masculine archetypes, eager to express their frustration at this annoying little world. While there have been great female-lead shows before, there haven't been that many with a cast half as embarrassingly qualified as that of Big Little Lies: the new show from director Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), and writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal) that shows the dark underside of rich suburban mothers as they deal with conflicts great and small. With failing and abusive marriages, negligent children, and controversial projects; the characters of this HBO drama are some of the richest female characters that the network has seen in some time. It may be wrapped in a fairly inconsequential murder plot, but it makes up for it with some of the best small character moments of 2017 so far.
It seems like it will be another droll, conventional drama. A group of mothers have their paths cross at their children's school. One wants to put on a production of the risque Avenue Q. Another has an abusive relationship that tears her apart. Another has weird fantasies of killing people on the beach. Much like Kelley's other work, the seemingly innocent events are spliced in with procedural moments where local parents are seen giving accounts of these mothers. They are trashy and maybe irresponsible. These mothers have paths cross almost by accident it seems. Whatever the case may be, it's a story of conflict and deceit that goes well beyond the simple struggles of raising a child to be morally upright.
The drama comes in the tension that each character brings to the screen. While they exist in the familiar vacuum of ennui and privilege, they also reflect the universal complexities of life. Their issues lie in the problems of any 21st century parent stuck in a gossip mill. They are all eager to be better than the other, occasionally fighting over trivial events. In their mind, they are the righteous heroes. To the community, they are a toxic force that is tearing apart the decency that holds the city together. Their big dreams are selfish and often lacking satisfaction for anyone outside of their head. For Kelley to pull back the curtain and reveal the vulnerability allows the viewer to sympathize with what is often seen as a one note villainous character in any other suburban drama.
While Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Reese Witherspoon all give great catty performances, it is Nicole Kidman who reminds us why she's great. In the series' most complex role, she deals with sexual abuse in very vulnerable ways. The show depicts a failing marriage that results in continually embarrassing acts of indecency, met with therapeutic treatment that shows the desperation to get better while emphasizing the tragedy of a dominating lover. What will she do? Her struggle is the most intimate compared to the general cast, and the writers give her one of the best performances of her career. You sympathize with her through small, nuanced acting moments. These are the moments that the series thrives on. It wants to give the unpleasant side of wealth, which it does with an excellent soundtrack that emphasizes the inner turmoil of each character.
Big Little Lies may have a bit of a familiarity to it, but it manages to avoid devolving into melodramatic soap. The drama is heightened, but the seriousness of their actions reflects in every decision that happens over the series' run. By the end, the show achieves the prophecy set in motion by episode one's title. Somebody did get murdered. Who was it? Why was it? All of these are answered, and it almost seems unsatisfying when placed alongside the inner struggle of these characters, all played excellently by the various big name actresses that prove just how many options are out there for actresses of any age. Is it the best show? Not exactly. However, it's so assured as as piece of auteur TV that it almost doesn't matter. It's fun and scandalous, but also deeply contemplative of its morality. It may not be a conventional crime show, but it's one that investigates these characters' souls. They aren't perfect, but you learn to sympathize with their struggles slowly but surely.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5