Review: 'Big Little Lies' offers small pleasures
Big stars — not so big a deal.
When it comes to HBO's flashy-but-slight Big Little Lies (Sunday, 9 ET/PT, *** out of four) that combination might not be a deal-breaker. The network, after all, has built a business on big-name talent, and Lies certainly delivers, with a cast led by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, working from a script by David E. Kelley. And if the sum feels like the TV equivalent of a beach read, well, there’s something to be said for a show that's more difficult to put down than take up.
Like the Liane Moriarty best-seller on which it’s based, the seven-episode Lies is a murder mystery wrapped around a social satire — one that makes specific, caustic comments about affluent suburban values, while offering a broader swipe at our universal habit of focusing on minutiae while ignoring the big sins swirling around us. And like the book, it uses a convoluted flashback structure and a (funny or annoying, take your pick) Greek chorus of witnesses to both tell and delay its story.
We know a murder has happened in Monterey, Calif., but we don’t know who was killed. So as the police investigate and interrogate, we examine the conflicts that seem to be at the root of the crime, wading our way through the red herrings thrown out by those witnesses.
At the center stands Madeline (Witherspoon), a rebel in search of a cause who finds one in Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single, working-class mother who has trouble fitting in with the richer folk around her. They have an ally in Celeste (Kidman), a former lawyer married to a seemingly perfect businessman (Alexander Skarsgård), and a rival in Renata (Dern), who accuses Jane’s five-year-old son of bullying her daughter.
The children’s conflicts are both trigger and mirror, reflecting back on the adults' problems while shedding light on those “big little lies” they’ve tried to keep hidden. No one is who they seem, and no marriage is quite as sturdy as it appears.
Whatever deeper point is being made here is obscured both by Lies' labored attempts to keep us guessing about the murder and, paradoxically enough, by the same star power that makes it worth watching in the first place. Still, assuming you're willing to sit through yet another story about the sad travails of rich, spoiled people, there is entertainment value to be found in the feuds and the gloss.
Not big entertainment, mind you, but entertainment nonetheless.