BIG LITTLE LIES was a bait and switch of the highest order. The show was marketed as a murder mystery, and the fragmentary flashforwards early on confirmed the idea that this was where the story was headed. But the killing itself didn’t actually occur until the last 15 minutes of the 7th and final hour, and the perpetrator was revealed to viewers a few minutes later, as we saw Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) heave evil Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) down the stairs at the Monterey elementary school’s Audrey & Elvis talent night to stop him from beating his wife Celeste (Nicole Kidman) to death. There was only one real “twist,” and that didn’t stand up to much scrutiny: in order for Perry to have been the rapist of Jane (Shailene Woodley) and thus the father of her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) without Jane realizing it before that moment, not only must the two of them have had no contact since she’d moved to Monterey–even though the school parents were apparently almost constantly mixing–but he would needed to have no recollection of her, since his wife Celeste spoke of Jane often Both of those things were possible (it was established that Perry traveled a lot), but awfully coincidental.
Luckily (or by design), by the time it sank in that Big Little Lies wasn’t really in the genre that was advertised, we had gotten immersed in the characters and especially the performances. The spectacular cast, in addition to the above, included Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, Monterey’s squeakiest wheel; Laura Dern as Renata, the richest and most tightly-wound woman in a town of stress and wealth; Adam Scott, James Tupper and Jeffrey Nordling as other men in the women’s lives; and the quietly brilliant Robin Weigert as Celeste and Perry’s therapist, who patiently guided Celeste to the knowledge that she had to leave her abusive husband. Despite all the lavish trappings of the 1% that abounded in the series, David E. Kelley (adapting the novel by Liane Moriarty and remarkably keeping his own writing idiosyncrasies under tight control) focused on the humanity of the characters and for the most part avoided easy satire of their more than comfortable circumstances.
Even so, in less careful hands Big Little Lies could have felt like a solemn Desperate Housewives. Jean-Marc Vallee directed all seven hours, and as he had in Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, he filmed and edited with a fresh caught-on-the-fly immediacy, bringing out performances from his cast that were often extraordinary even by their previous standards. He had worked with Witherspoon on Wild, and here they emphasized the sadness and desperation behind her trademark perfectionist persona, adding layers to a character that could have seemed cartoonish. The show’s greatest acting achievement, though, belonged to Kidman. The role of Celeste was perfectly suited to an actress who’s sometimes felt in the past like her performances were under a polished glaze; here she allowed that surface to crack, delivering possibly the best work of her career. She was matched by Skarsgard, who managed to convey that some kind of twisted love co-existed with Perry’s monstrousness.
Everything about Big Little Lies was assembled with precision, from the sun-drenched photography (by Yves Belanger) to the impressionistic editing, the production design of the amazing seaside houses, and the songs featured on the soundtrack. (HBO obviously contributed a budget that allowed for such sumptuousness.) The series was a demonstration of how a relatively familiar narrative can be made special when it’s taken seriously and addressed with passion and style, and the fact that the show’s ratings steadily rose even as the mystery plotline dropped into the background was a victory for substance over gimmickry. Its title was appropriate: even though the subject matter turned out to be relatively small in scale, the substance was quite large