Female aggression is the glittering lure of Big Little Lies, the HBO miniseries that makes athleisure-clad warriors of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley. Packs of mean girls once roved the hallways of pop culture, from Heathers to Pretty Little Liars. Now, those mostly white, mostly wealthy women duke it out in the mommy wars, where every child-rearing decision is both a dagger and an Achilles’ heel. The word “vicious” — tutted by parents of both genders at moms — is as ubiquitous in this version of the affluent seaside town of Monterey, California, as are Burberry dresses for first-graders. Based closely on Liane Moriarty’s enormously thoughtful best seller, the seven-part adaptation (which premieres Sunday) teases out our biases about aggression — who gets punished and who gets a pass, what we teach about it versus what we do about it — and how violence is learned through generations. Big Little Lies’s themes go back to Greek tragedy, but take on forceful new connotations when filtered through a female lens, even in this rarefied setting. As frothy and funny as it is serious, the miniseries will likely stand out as one of the most important TV projects of the year.
Bruises bloom faster than salvaged-wood cafés here, coloring legs and backs and necks in a nauseating purple. A more final type of violence opens Big Little Lies, and the parents of Otter Bay Elementary School unload years of gossip and catty impressions of one another to homicide detectives with a near-orgasmic passion. Among Monterey’s least liked is Witherspoon’s Madeline, a housewife and mother of two who freely admits to her new friend, Woodley’s new-in-town single mom Jane, that she shames working mothers for not spending enough time with their kids. Unlike the other Monterey mommies, Jane’s so young she’s initially mistaken for Madeline’s nanny — there’s always a “right” way and time for women to reproduce, even for the most liberated among us.
It’s Madeline who’s the most relatable, even when she glams up in 4-inch stilettos and flower-print dresses probably straight out of the Draper James catalogue just to drive her kids to school. Her lack of purpose outside parenting drives her crazy, but she knows she can’t compete professionally with her peers, like tech exec Renata (Laura Dern), for whom being on the board of PayPal is just another side project. And so Madeline can’t help being, essentially, the Tasmanian devil of Monterey, destroying everything in her path in her flurry to right the slightest of wrongs. On the first day of school, Jane and Renata exchange dirty glances after Renata’s daughter accuses Jane’s son of attacking her on the playground. Jane’s son denies it, but he becomes the only kid in the class not to be invited to Renata’s daughter’s birthday party. Jane’s merely upset, while Madeline — an “itty bitty ball of rage,” as one of the other moms describe her — quickly takes it nuclear by pulling her own popular daughter from the party to punish Renata.
Petty bitchiness will probably be the main reason viewers tune in, and Big Little Lies serves up plenty of it while decrying the sexism that depicts all women as competitive with one another. “Women: You all want to be the envy of your friends,” observes Renata’s husband (Jeffrey Nordling) in a typical line that’s at once sharply observational and off-puttingly boorish. Mindful of not perpetuating the age-old tradition of putting women on a pedestal only to knock them down — a goddess/trash dichotomy now nearly as pervasive as the virgin/whore one; ask any Hollywood It girl who gets one more award or second in the spotlight than she “deserves” — the miniseries celebrates the rich moms’ designer coats and Architectural Digest–worthy beachside mansions while exploring why none of those social-media-ready surfaces make these women happy.
Significantly, these mothers on the verge of a nervous breakdown aren’t consumed by quiet distress because they aren’t mindful or grateful or present enough — none of that trite nonsense. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Big Little Lies belongs to that subsection of book-club staples about ordinary women so consumed by ideals of female perfection that they don’t realize — or realize too late — how their lives have been derailed by male cruelty. Madeline is confronted by her first husband’s (James Tupper) infidelity all over again when her younger daughter ends up in the same classroom as his child with his mistress-turned-wife (Zoe Kravitz). Jane believes her son didn’t hurt his classmate, but it’s soon revealed that she has her own reasons to fear the sweet 6-year-old.
But it’s Kidman’s Celeste — the tallest among the three friends and yet the most shrinking — whose domestic-abuse story line most bluntly demonstrates the soul-killing sacrifices it takes to appear flawless. The violence that Celeste endures from her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is unlike any I’ve seen in either movies or television, and its mixture with sexual desire gives Celeste enough plausible deniability to lie to herself about what’s really happening. Wild and Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée employs his signature style of fast cuts, handheld cameras, and dense collages of images. In lighter scenes, he can deliver a joke or convey maternal warmth in half a second. But that same approach in the abuse scenes is oppressively intimate. A therapist’s attempt to get Celeste to admit her victimization in the fifth episode is the most rivetingly tense moment of the first six installments.
Kidman’s Celeste is statue-still for much of the series, as if she were afraid to take up too much space. The actress’s native Australian accent distractedly pops in and out — perhaps in an unconscious homage to the novel’s origins — but she fully expresses the character through her physical performance alone. Madeline is a brooding brunette in her soul (and in the book), but Witherspoon is a hilarious delight, rattling off bratty bons mots like, “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.” Witherspoon doesn’t have the best chemistry with Adam Scott, who plays her dumpy second husband, but at least it sells their lack of enthusiasm for their marital duties. Woodley is great, too, as a lonely outsider suffering from PTSD, but unsurprisingly it’s Dern who steals every scene as the tragic embodiment of having-it-all womanhood: a stratospherically successful leaner-in who finds that she’s now too busy to enjoy her life, and that being the object of jealousy doesn’t make her any more liked.
There’s probably another five story lines that I haven’t mentioned; the miniseries is as packed with plot as the Bay Area is with sanctimony. Writer David E. Kelley, who borrows from Moriarty some of her most quotable lines, can’t make storytelling sense out of her most outlandish development, which involves Madeline’s teenage daughter (Kathryn Newton) and an extremely juvenile understanding of internet activism. “Why does shit keep happening to me?” Madeline wonders, knowing that the rest of Monterey is watching her every move. Their job is to judge her. Ours is to not.