There are few things more intriguing than exploring the dark underbelly of a seemingly perfect suburbia. HBO’s Big Little Lies, debuting Sunday, Feb. 19, offers a delicious, wicked examination of just that—the dark side of domestic life in the posh seaside town of Monterey, California.
Who doesn’t relish uncovering the dirt and gossip behind the facades of upscale normalcy? The true stories within the pretty homes, with their manicured lawns and the real dynamics of the overzealous PTA presidents and the frantic working mothers. The inner strains of "happy” couples—a suited up dad zooming off to work in his Ferrari while a resentful mom ferries the kids to school in her SUV, while trying to find meaning in the pursuit of the healthiest juice, the best Soul Cycle class, the most prestigious caterer.
We are titillated to discover petty jealousies, backstabbing neighbors, dark secrets, extra martial affairs and, gasp, maybe even a murder or two!
Those revelations were, in fact, a major appeal of ABC’s hit Desperate Housewives when it came out back in 2004. We followed the inhabitants of Wisteria Lane and their entangled friendships as if they were real—Teri Hatcher as neurotic Susan, Marcia Cross as icy perfectionist Bree, Felicity Huffman as stressed out mom Lynette, and Eva Longoria as sexy adulteress Gabrielle. And now, we find ourselves living vicariously through other suburban women’s relationships and dysfunctions in Big Little Lies.
At the premiere in Hollywood where only the pilot was shown, before a huge after party, the audience was begging for more. This is Desperate Housewives on steroids—beautifully shot and directed and all dressed up with mega movie stars—Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley as the female leads, flanked by veteran Laura Dern and hipster beauty Zoë Kravitz. It also has the benefits of being adapted by for the screen from Lianne Moriarty’s best-selling novel by TV veteran David Kelly and was helmed by Jean Marc Valle, who also directed Witherspoon and Dern in the film Wild.
The show opens with an unsolved murder at a posh fashion show/charity event for an elementary school. We don’t know exactly what happened, who did it, or even who was killed, but after that initial unsettling set up, we move quickly into the backgrounds of the school’s leading ladies and start to piece together what might have happened. Along with their loyalties and support for one another, we witness their passive aggressive barbs and their cat fights over power, popularity, and status.
Connected by the fact that their first graders are all classmates, there’s Witherspoon as Madeline—the grown up, designer pump-wearing version of the manipulative, opportunistic and overly cheery student she played to perfection in Election; Kidman as Celeste, a vulnerable, beautiful mother of twin boys with a handsome yet abusive husband Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgard); and Woodley as Jane, the fragile, out of place newcomer—a mysterious single mom with a secret that will soon come to light.
There’s also Dern as harried working mom Renata who navigates the playground and the boardroom with equal ambition, while Kravitz portrays socially conscious Bonnie, a hip yoga instructor who also happens to be Madeline’s ex-husband’s much younger second wife. All feel like Emmy worthy performances—especially Witherspoon's.
The kids here too are excellent—both the characters and the actors—realistic mini versions of the parents they model themselves after complete with sarcastic quips, cell phone addictions, false accusations and a desperate need to fit in.
Knowing that it ends with a murder makes watching this show tense. We view it with a sense of impending doom, our antennae ever on alert for clues. But it also makes for an intoxicating journey. I can’t wait for episode two.