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Big Little Lies: Review

Every so often something comes along that truly surprises you. Something that on paper you would normally despise, but that you end up thoroughly enjoying. For me, that surprise came in the form of a new HBO mini-series, Big Little Lies.

Any piece of television that sounds like it could be related to ABC’s Pretty Little Liars would garner a vehement “no” from me. Especially a mini-series about the plights of rich, middle-aged women in Monterey, California with a plot strongly resembling that of a soap opera, starring Reese Witherspoon. I am about as far away from the target audience as one could possibly get.

Or so I thought. The only reason I paid any attention to it was due to the incredible cinematography in the trailer, along with its repetitive use of, “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone,” by The Temptations in its marketing. Also, after Game of Thrones, Vice Principals, Westworld, and The Young Pope, I needed a new HBO series to watch, so I gave this one a shot.

Based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty and directed by Jean-Marc Valee, Big Little Lies takes place in the upper-caste community of Monterey, California, where a murder occurs at a school function. Through most of the series, the audience is unaware of who was killed and who did the killing. Ideas about who can fill either role come from the increasing tension amongst a group of mothers (played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern) that all have their share of problems. The series is riddled with interviews from other Monterey residents regarding the murder, giving more context to the rivalries within the community rather than clues about the killing.

What makes the show so riveting are these relationships and these very real problems. Nicole Kidman’s character, Celeste, is in an abusive relationship with her husband Perry (played hauntingly by Alexander Skarsgard). The show makes an effort to show that while Perry is indeed a monster, Celeste has a lot of psychological issues that cause her to remain in that destructive environment. Confusing anger with lust and sex with violence, the two have a brutal relationship that appears real, and answers questions about abuse like, “Why don’t they just leave?” Shailene Woodley’s character, Jane, is a young single mother who just moved to Monterey, a place with a great school system that she cannot afford. Jane’s struggles are a reality for many people. Renata, played by Laura Dern, is a CEO rather than a stay-at-home-mom like many of the other Monterey residents. Renata is widely resented by the other mothers, and she believes it is for this reason. Her daughter is being violently bullied at school, and she can’t do anything about it. Her irrationality at times is relatable, for what parent wouldn’t go a bit crazy to protect their child?

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And then there is Madeline, Reese Witherspoon’s character. Her problems are more internal than the other moms. She never got over her ex-husband, she is losing connection to her teenage daughter, she has a lack of passion for her new husband (Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott), despite him being a great guy, she is insecure about her age and her purpose, and she even has an affair. Madeline is annoying and selfish and a liar, yet the audience can sympathize with her. Witherspoon gives a performance perfectly catered to her skills in order to achieve this.

The acting in this show is phenomenal. Nicole Kidman gives a career-high performance in a more subdued, subtle role than usual. Laura Dern is also fantastic, being both hateable and understandable concurrently. Adam Scott is also very good as one of the only rational characters in the show. He stole every scene he was in. Alexander Skarsgard is terrifying as Celeste’s abusive husband. He does a convincing job in the scenes where it appears there is still hope for him as a person, and the audience understands how Celeste could get roped back in repeatedly.

The choice of music and scenery work collaboratively and add to the story in their own ways. The soundtrack is a mixture of 1960’s-1990s hits and more recent indie choices. The beautiful, bayside scenery is an excellent contrast to how ugly the lives of some of the characters are. The rough waves reflect the turbulence of events. The show also visualizes many emotions, thoughts, and fantasies of the characters, flashing imagined scenes that the audience may sometimes not be able to discern from reality.

The show tackles love, rivalry, abuse, infidelity, rape, murder, and the morality of intentions. It is a very accessible show, one that any demographic can enjoy. Despite its initial appearance as a “chick-flick”, this show ended up being much more. Its entire 7 episodes can be watched on HBO GO or HBO NOW, and if you don’t have an account, you can get a month of NOW for free.

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