I almost prefaced this with a disclaimer that I normally don’t go for this type of show (and by “this type of show” I mean the kind of family drama that loosely ties a mystery into the plot for added suspense, but mostly focuses on relationships). But then I thought wait, aren’t you the one who’s devoted plenty of posts on this blog discussing the merits of The Affair? So yeah, scratch that.
But still, given that my favorite shows at the moment either involve zombies or intrigue, incest, brutal deaths and, oh yeah, dragons in a medieval setting, this one was definitely out of my comfort zone.
However, I did read/hear good things about it, and how bad could it be if Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon were involved? Turns out, not bad at all. I was so pleasantly surprised, in fact, I’m inclined to rate it among my top three mini series of the past year, along with The Night Of and Stranger Things (and granted, Stranger Things has a new season coming out this year, but it could totally work as a stand alone season, so whatever).
This unnecessarily long introduction is by way of driving home the fact that I was genuinely impressed by Big Little Lies. It’s even more surprising, considering I’ve never really been a fan of Nicole Kidman, which in and of itself would have been reason alone to deter me from watching this show. And boy, was I glad to be proven wrong!
Like any good show in recent years, the title sequence alone was enough to draw me in. The music selection throughout the show was exceptional, although I do think that 6-year-olds being familiar with Elvis Presley’s entire catalogue and rocking out to iconic 70’s songs (I’m looking at you, Papa Was A Rolling Stone) is a bit unrealistic.
The show slowly introduces us to the real housewives of Monterey, focusing on Madeline, the neurotic theater-enthusiast still holding a significant grudge against her ex husband (now married to the young, gorgeous and free-spirited Zoe Kravitz – who looks so much like her parents it’s freaking uncanny), Jane, the single mom to a sweet little boy that may or may not have bullied a little girl on his first day of school, Celeste, the beautiful former lawyer and mother of twins who appears to have the perfect life, and Renata, the bullied girl’s mother and the only one of the protagonists who has an active (and lucrative) career.
As we get to know the four women, we get snippets of the police interviews conducted during a murder investigation; the show cleverly focuses on minor characters’ accounts, which succeeds in not only keeping the identity of the victim (and the accused killer[s]) hidden until the very last episode, but also in giving us the third person POV regarding our protagonists and how the other parents perceive them.
As the story unfolds, these flash-forward third party accounts are juxtaposed with what’s going on in real time to provide accurate profiles of the protagonists, but mostly to underline the disparity between the skewed perception the people of Monterey have of these four women and what actually goes on behind closed doors.
We learn that Madeline is a busybody whose reactions are over-the-top, but we also see a passionate woman, who’s a fiercely loyal friend to those she loves; we are bombarded with comments about Celeste’s seemingly perfect family as we watch her self-destruct in a twisted, violent relationship she’s unable to break away from; we see the distrust in Jane, the outsider who doesn’t fit in, as we watch a young, loving mother do her best for her little boy, while she’s crippled by fear that the kid’s horrible father might return – or, even worse, that her son may have inherited his violent genes; we see bitchy Renata, the misguided, over-protective, often hysterical mother, who’s terrified of being branded as the career-driven woman by the other parents – or as the ‘soft’ mom by other high-power executives in a male-dominated business.
What becomes apparent right from the get go is that the story really is about the women. Their husbands/exes/flings have vital roles in advancing the plot and their respective wives’ character development, but they consistently take a back seat to the action and rarely do we get their own point of view as the story unfolds.
What doesn’t become apparent right away, however, is that the story isn’t really about how deceptively perfect these women’s lives appear on the outside, while everything is crumbling within. In the beginning, it almost seems as though the whole point of the plot is to showcase the old cliche of “look how these rich beautiful people aren’t really better than anyone else“. We focus on the drama, the unhealthy relationships, the resentment, as the protagonists strive to cling to the facade they’ve been constructing their whole lives.
The murder mystery becomes almost inconsequential: maybe Madeline stuck her nose where it didn’t belong and got killed for it. Maybe Renata’s hysterics and accusations got her murdered. Later, we suspect that maybe Jane’s fear and suppressed rage finally got the best of her and she took matters into her own hands; maybe Celeste did the exact same thing. If not for the stellar writing, acting and direction, the story itself might have almost bordered on boring. As it happens, it draws you in, because the characters are compelling. Everyone – from the four female protagonists to their male counterparts, to the incredible children actors – plays their part to perfection, and you can’t help but want to see how it all comes together.
It’s not until the final few moments of the show that it becomes abuntantly clear that the show is about friendship. Not to give anything away, but in the end, the actual death is, in fact, inconsequential to the plot; it’s not a whodunnit, nor is the point about the consequences. Instead of being the end to the main characters’ story, it’s rather the beginning.
A side note on the murder: I had two theories about who dies in the end, and the way the story concluded basically combined both. What I didn’t see coming, however, was the identity of the killer. It totally took me by surprise but, in retrospect, it made perfect sense in terms of pushing the plot forward.
To sum up: the show features fantastic performances, a gripping story, and it even made me warm up to Nicole Kidman for the first time in years. Unless you only want your drama with a side of horror, fantasy or sci-fi, it’s a definite must-see.