Filled with an array of stars doing fine work with middling material, Big Little Lies is a pleasurable seven-episode HBO production that’s the equivalent of eating a box of expensive chocolates. Based on Liane Moriarty’s bestseller, Lies stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern as women on the edge in Monterey, Calif.: Each has her own subplot of anguish and deceit. The miniseries is framed by a murder mystery that, when the first episode begins, has just occurred: As viewers, we’re not only not sure whodunit, we don’t even know who got dun — er, done — in.
The tale immerses us in an ultra-wealthy Northern California town, where all the houses have magnificent views of the ocean, and the ocean gazes back at the malignant behavior of the homeowners. Witherspoon’s Madeline is a tightly wound mother who’s fighting opposition to a school production of Avenue Q. (Some parents think, puppets or not, it’s too mature for the kiddies; Madeline thinks it broadens the tykes’ artistic horizons.) Kidman’s Celeste is a mom of twins, married to a control freak with anger issues, played by Alexander Skarsgård. Woodley is Jane, a single mom with a little son who may or may not be a big bully. Dern’s idea of parenting as Renata is to smile tightly until she explodes into an ear-piercing screech.
In short: not a happy scenario, but Big Little Lies trades on our innate pleasure at watching rich people be miserable. Moriarty’s book has been adapted by no less than David E. Kelley, who usually comes up with his own ideas, which have ranged from Ally McBeal to the recently renewed Amazon Prime series Goliath. Kelley wrote every episode, and Jean-Marc Vallée directed every one of ’em. As such, Big Little Lies possesses a singular vision with a serenely uniform tone.
The result is a production that, scene for scene, is a well-acted pleasure — but after the first few hours, it occurs to you that not much is actually happening. The show is expert in showing the cracks in the psyches of beautiful people — even Adam Scott, usually comically frowsy and here playing Witherspoon’s hubby, is both beardedly handsome and depressedly miserable. There’s a lot of sex, much of it on the punitive side — painful for the participants to engage in and for the viewer to watch. There’s a lot of melodramatic threatening. (“You’re dead in this town, as is your f***ing puppet show!”) There are heated parent-teacher conferences so baldly unbelievable, you’ll have a hard time deciding which side deserves to be disciplined more.
Still, the damn thing is irresistible. The performances crackle, and each of the lead women forges her own brand of indelible unhappiness. Even the music deserves special praise: The soundtrack is full of shrewdly chosen oldies and new music, ranging from the Mamas & the Papas to Leon Bridges. There’s also a lot of incidental music executed in a striking way: Sometimes the instruments drop away and you hear a familiar voice — the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, for example — in a new, starkly unadorned way. Or the reverse happens: No vocals, but the familiar instrumentation — to the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” for instance — suddenly becomes intriguingly sinister. A lot of craft and care has gone into Big Little Lies. It’s not great TV, but it sure holds your attention.
Big Little Lies airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.