Big Little Lies Series Premiere Recap: "Somebody's Dead"

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
If you’re a woman, imagine for a moment what your perfect life would look like. Take your time. Imagine in crystalline detail how you’d dress, talk, walk, live, and move through the world. Who would your partner be? Would you have a partner at all? Perfection — particularly the kind of women learn to strive for — is impossible no matter the form this ideal takes. That doesn’t mean you stop striving for perfection. For some the closer they get to a picture perfect life the more they break themselves in pieces to achieve it. Big Little Lies, the new HBO miniseries, mines the thematic terrain of women trying to embody the impossible standards they’re held to. The particulars of female aggression, desire, and loss are used to great effect acting as the undercurrent of every moment.

The premiere kicks off with the aftermath of a murder at a school fundraiser. The stage is flanked by large images of Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley. Well-dressed men and women are awash in the glowing lights of ambulances and police cars. The actual victim is never identified. Instead writer David E. Kelley, who adapts the novel by Liane Moriarty for this miniseries, gives bits of information to pique our interest without ever pointing to the absolute truth.

The show pivots around the lives of three different women contending with the strain of motherhood and domestic life in Monterey, California. These women are discussed and gossiped about in great detail by the other parents at the school their young children attend in the present-day police interviews that punctuate the episode. One of the leads is Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), the young mother of Ziggy (Iain Armitage). (Yes, like Ziggy Stardust.) She’s new to Monterey and quickly proves to be out of her depth.

Jane immediately stands out at the upscale public school Ziggy starts attend for first grade. While the other women have highly curated presentations bolstered by obvious wealth, Jane looks to be their polar opposite. Her clothes lack the tailoring and refinement of theirs. The other mothers who swarm around the school on orientation day go home to fine china, sprawling homes, and Burberry coats. Jane sleeps on a pull-out couch so Ziggy can have the only bedroom. The reasons Jane uprooted her life to move to Monterey remain opaque but at one point she says something that points to a complicated past. “It’s like I’m on the outside looking in. I see this life and this moment and its so wonderful but it doesn’t quite belong to me,” she says. Jane finds an unexpected connection with the type-A, supremely bitch Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon).

Madeline is the kind of woman when told she’s beautiful responds without pause, “I agree.” This is the kind of role Reese Witherspoon was born to play. She’s equal parts brittle and vulnerable, beautiful put together and a wreck beneath the surface. She’s the kind of woman that if you just knew her in passing you’d think she had everything she wanted. But that is far from the truth. Her entire life revolves around her role as a mother to the teenaged Abigail (Kathryn Newton) and first grader, Chloe (Darby Camp). She’s in a passionless marriage to Ed (Adam Scott). Watching her daughters grow up and no longer need to rely on her puts into stark relief that Madeline doesn’t have much else going for her. Sure, she works part time for a community theater. But she’d be the first to tell you that’s not enough. As one man says about her during his police interview, “She grew up wanting to be Betty Grable and ended up Betty Crocker.”

To make matters worse watching her ex (and Abigail’s father), Nathan (James Tupper) live a great life only makes her inadequacies more apparent. He’s with a “younger, sexier, prettier” wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) who has become close to Madeline’s daughters. Each of the leads’ storylines touch on the ways women are judged and held to impossible standards. But it’s Madeline that actually voices the anger that comes with not living up to the person you’ve been told to strive to be as a woman. At one point she launches into a rant to Jane about the problems with working mothers who devote more time to professional goals than spending every waking moment with their kids. “Us against them,” Madeline says without irony. Watching Madeline cut down the other mothers with an icy glare I thought Amy Dunne from Gone Girl fame could easily fit in this milieu. Just beneath the cutting insults and cunning manipulations is the possibility of violence. Big Little Lies is a frothy and engrossing series. But it also has a surprisingly edge seen whenever Madeline’s best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is onscreen.

Married to the younger and dashing Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) with twin sons Celeste has the kind of life even the other women she comes in contact with in Monterey are jealous of. Her marriage to Perry raises eyebrows given their intense sexual chemistry that makes other women openly jealous. They’re a beautiful couple, living in a beautiful home, and have beautiful sons. But the beauty of their lives masks an ugly dynamic in their marriage: Perry’s passion easily tips into fury. A disagreement about their sons befriending Ziggy reveals the fractures in their relationship. Perry moves from being tense to yanking Celeste’s arm nodding to an abusive nature. Big Little Lies is full of amazing performances but it’s Kidman’s solemn embodiment of Celeste that brings the pathos.

In many ways this premiere is the equivalent of setting up a beautiful dining room table you know you’re going to set on fire. The fire has yet to be start but it’s obviously coming. A crucial confrontation at the school’s orientation hints at the explosive dynamics soon to come.

At the center is Renata Klein (Laura Dern). When Madeline lobs insults about working mother’s it’s Renata she has in mind. Renata is the living embodiment of the empty platitudes that come with women “having it all”. In this case a seemingly good marriage, kids, and most importantly, an amazing career. She’s intelligent, extremely successful, and constantly bettering herself. Her daughter Amabella (Ivy George), is choked by a fellow first grader off-screen. During orientation one of the teachers gets the bright idea to have Amabella point out who did that to her in front of all the other students and parents. Who does she point out? Ziggy. But he is resolute in saying he didn’t do anything to harm her, which Jane believes. No matter the truth battle lines are drawn thanks to Madeline finding her way into the drama to defend Jane and Ziggy against Renata. The way these opposing exemplars of what it means to be the perfect women square off gives Big Little Lies some interesting territory to explore. But what will be more fascinating is if they ever come to realize the perfection they’ve been striving for is nothing but an illusion.

Other Gossip:

— Pretty much every TV show can be called beautiful now. But the gorgeousness of Big Little Lies is what I like to call “aspirational beauty." It’s the kind of beauty you can imagine existing in real life if you have the money and time to attain it.

— Detective Adrienne Quinlan (Merrin Dunhery) has the very difficult task of parsing out valuable information from gossip, half truth, and outright lies in order to solve the murder that the premiere touches on.

— There’s something about Laura Dern’s delivery during the scene Renata is introduced, when she remarks that she joined the board of Paypal during the summer; it reeks of fake humility. Madeline’s hate toward the hyper-competent working mothers is misplaced. But given Laura’s brand of half-hearted sincerity it isn’t all that surprising they don’t like each other.

— Madeline gets all the best lines. I couldn’t help but laugh when she complained about Bonnie’s perfection saying she probably gives “mint flavored organic blowjobs.”

— The entire season is written by David E. Kelly and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Their very different styles work surprisingly well together.

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