February 20, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Big Little Lies”


BIG LITTLE LIES:  Sunday 9PM on HBO – DVR Alert

We no longer blink when movie stars sign on for TV work, and this week’s arrivals are Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, not to mention Shailene Woodley, whose 7-hour HBO project BIG LITTLE LIES is so star-heavy that Adam Scott, Alexander Skarsgard and Laura Dern count as supporting cast.  For all that, Big Little Lies is relatively unassuming as Event TV goes, a small-scale soap with an indie feel supplied by director Jean-Marc Vallee (who previously worked with Witherspoon on Wild).

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Lies is that its script is the work of David E. Kelley, who has subsumed his own very recognizable narrative voice (most recently on view in Amazon’s Goliath), at least in the early going, to provide a fluid, compelling adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel.  Relocated from Australia to Monterey, California, the story’s engine is a murder mystery set around an affluent school fundraising event, but the opening hour plays those cards very close to the vest (the identity of the victim isn’t even revealed), and revolves in flashback instead around a group of women whose children all attend first grade together.  Madeline (Witherspoon) is dealing with a sense of emptiness now that her daughters are starting to lead their own lives, as well as the pressure of co-existing with her ex-husband’s younger and more idealistic second wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz); Celeste (Kidman) appears to have a picture-perfect existence, but her husband Perry (Skarsgard) is abusive; Renata (Dern), the only mom in the group with a high-powered full-time job, is alternately defensive and guilty about that fact; Jane (Woodley) is the newcomer, a single mom who lives in a different socioeconomic strata from the other women, and who’s plunged immediately into the thicket of town politics when she’s taken under Madeline’s wing and her son is accused of classroom violence by Renata’s daughter.  Present-tense police interviews with the other parents in town provide a Greek chorus to the story.

It would be easy to imagine this material as a bitchy network 1-hour (the story could practically be retitled Richer and More Desperate Housewives), but it’s elevated by the serious approach and especially by the acting.  Vallee and his longtime cinematographer Yves Belanger employ a roving, often hand-held camera that helps to keep the action from feeling static, and emphasize the roiling surf around the luxury houses.  (The budget also allows for location shooting rather than overlit TV soundstages.)  The cast, not surprisingly, is all that one could wish for, particularly Witherspoon, who brings an underlying fragility to the type-A persona she’s perfected in earlier films, and Woodley, a collection of exposed nerve endings as a woman trying to hold things together.

Eventually Big Little Lies will have to settle down and tell its story, and perhaps at some point Kelley won’t be able to help himself from exercising his mannerisms, or Vallee will be unable to keep control of the material.  At its start, though, Big Little Lies, despite its remarkably big pedigree, is refreshing in its willingness to stay little and precise.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."