New murder mystery “Big Little Lies” intrigues, with a few bumpy patches

Photo Courtesy of HBO Canada

Jeff Turner

HBO’s latest miniseries features a murder, where several upper class-wealthy California mothers are supposedly involved. The director of the first episode is Jean Marc-Vallee of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” (likely why they got Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern) and the showrunner is David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal”). The cast doesn’t stop at Witherspoon and Dern, it also includes Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, and Zoe Kravitz. The pilot looks to be going interesting places, and there’s some good character work going on with both the writing and the performances. There are some problems, though.

Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon) is taking her daughter, Chloe, to elementary school. She’s tightly wound and high maintenance, so when she sees a teenager texting in her car, she needs to get out and yell at them. Through this she meets Jane Chapman (Woodley) and her son, they then hit it off. It goes from there.

The miniseries is centered around a murder at an elementary school fundraiser (presumably the play Madeline is seen preparing for throughout the pilot?) and the crux of the story is told in flashbacks.

One thing that’s noticeable is the cutback to the police interrogating people from the school and having them talk about these people. It serves as a device to establish a form of quasi-narration, but at the end of the pilot it cuts back and it shows the investigator watching those same people talk. It seems redundant, it’d be easier to either include one or the other.

The writing is often quite strong. The show sits down and takes its time to develop its characters, with a lot being told about who they are based solely on how they react to situations and go about their days. There are some on-the-nose moments however, a particularly cringe worthy line is when Laura Dern’s character, Renata Klein, takes a phone call and says that it must be her Hamilton tickets and that she’s already seen it four times.

It’s because she’s wealthy, get it?

The acting is remarkable, Witherspoon is perfectly cast in the sort of role that she perfected a lengthy time ago. A high-strung aristocrat with a strong will and a tendency towards grudges. Woodley is likely miscast. She is approaching her mid-twenties but she still looks like she’s seventeen. She’s not a bad actress but she doesn’t come across as life weary and worn down here. It’s possible she will get an opportunity to show her chops later in the series. Dern offers a reliable presence in Renata, controlled, contrasting Madeline’s mania. Kidman is also restrained.

It’s clear more is being saved for later, and Kelley is good about keeping secrets hidden. The identity of the person who was murder doesn’t get revealed in the pilot, which is phenomenal.

Hopefully that trend continues until it is appropriate to make the reveal.

“Big Little Lies” offers a scathing, meditative analysis on private school culture. It is schlock on
the surface, but there is more underneath.