Has HBO been promoting Big Little Lies for two full years? Because it feels like HBO has been promoting Big Little Lies for two full years. Or maybe I’ve just been following Reese Witherspoon for too long (she essentially live-Instagrammed the show’s entire production).
By the time the seven-episode series premiered on Sunday, I’d somehow convinced myself the show had aired, won a few Emmys, and been forgotten. But whoops! It hadn’t. Big Little Lies, based on the Liane Moriarty book of the same name, has just gotten started—and appears to be a sharper, smarter version of American Beauty, one that’s a little lighter on its feet and filmed with a wider lens.
The setup is simple, and instantly compelling, thanks in part to a gorgeous production helmed by Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée. Someone from an affluent Monterey, California neighborhood has been murdered, and just about everyone in town (or at least every A-lister in the cast) seems to have been capable of doing it. The series begins immediately following the murder, which occurred during a fundraiser, and flashes back to the moment those being interrogated by police say everything changed: when a working-class newcomer, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), meets Madeline Mckenzie (Reese Witherspoon), one of the mothers in town vying for the title of queen bee.
Monterey, we soon learn, is filled with people who are as rich as they are ruthless. But, like so many HBO characters before, they’re privately very sad. Sad about their kids not liking them. Sad about other moms not liking them. Sad about not having the families or careers they dreamed of. So maybe the ones who seemed mean at first are actually pretty OK and incapable of murder! And maybe the ones who seemed nice at first are actually monsters and quite capable of murder! This ambiguity is how the show hooks you, and everyone involved is talented enough to make sure it goes in deep.
I’m going to focus on Reese Witherspoon for a moment. Oh, Reese Witherspoon. Reese Witherspoon is amazing in this. After watching her spend the past few years of her career (you know, the ones following that incident when she got super hammered and yelled at a cop), the book-loving Draper James founder has done a phenomenal job convincing the public that she’s just a nice, old-fashioned, southern gal. (Not the racist kind, the sweet tea-drinkin’, y’all-sayin’ kind).
This has been especially frustrating to me, because I simply don’t buy most of it. There is something about Witherspoon’s rehearsed smile that suggests she’s covering up a sort of... delightful nastiness. To me, Witherspoon seems like a generally positive, friendly woman whose meanness definitely exists, but is careful to never expose itself beyond the safety of a dinner table with close friends, or anywhere there’s free-flowing champagne and zero cameras. Thank god she was cast as Madeline Mackenzie.
Madeline Mackenzie is the embodiment of this imaginary version of Reese. She’s Tracy Flick at 40, behind the wheel of a Buick. Her shine is a little duller than it used to be. Her veneer is starting to crack. We see how she acts in public (says one character during their interrogation, “She grew up wanting to be Betty Grable, ended up being Betty Crocker”), and how she acts at home, desperate to reconnect with her angry teen daughter and convince her second husband (Adam Scott) that she’s not still hung up on her ex, whose new wife (Zoë Kravitz) is infuriatingly perfect.
It’s a setup we’re given for all the characters in episode one: here’s how they are around people, and here’s how they are alone. Everyone thinks Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) has the perfect marriage, but her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is abusing her behind closed doors. Jane seems so innocent and sweet, but sleeps with a gun under her pillow. So which is it? Big Little Lies, like so many suburban dramas before it, is about discovering which of those personas—if any—you can ever really trust. It’s also about listening to your grandmother when she tells you not to judge a book by its cover.
Alan Ball’s screenplay for American Beauty was painfully impressed by its surface-level insights, and convinced it was showing you a side of suburbia (Extramarital affairs?! Murder?! Gay stuff?!) you’d never seen before. But Big Little Lies is smart enough to know that you’ve seen (and perhaps lived) plenty of it. We expect suburbia to be at least as fucked up as Monterey, and Witherspoon, Kidman, Woodley, and company are more than happy to give us precisely what we want.