A first grade class that’s almost like if Lululemon, Whole Foods, Real Simple and Dwell collaborated on an elementary school. Upmarket Monterey moms with a lot of mystery, intrigue and in-fighting. The return of David E. Kelley at his best. And somebody dead — murdered at a tony school fundraiser, quite possibly by another parent. HBO’s Big Little Lies (produced by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, a Nashville dream team if ever there was one) is only four episodes in but I’m already knee-deep in theories and questions. I don’t want to give away too many plot points, so I’ve devised a handy equation to explain the show instead:
Twin Peaks + Desperate Housewives + (1/2 x Stepford Wives) + ( Mean Girls x The Alison Hendrix Parts Of Orphan Black) = Big Little Lies
We have the piece-by-pieces investigation of an unsolved murder of Twin Peaks, the dark, suburban dealings of Desperate Housewives, the surprising satire of upper-class femininity of The Stepford Wives, the social machinations and stratifications of Mean Girls and the tightly-wound perfection of Alison Hendrix’s fast-unraveling life. It’s a quick watch, and a show you’ll want to catch up on.
Although it can be fun to see a well-known actor cast totally against type, there is something incredibly satisfying about the on-the-nose typecasting going on in Big Little Lies. Reese Witherspoon plays Madeline Martha Mackenzie, the high-strung, type-A scheming mom to first grader Chloe and teenage Abigail. Imagine Tracy Flick mixed with Regina George, but somehow less devious: Madeline is one of those perfectionists who has to carefully arrange her whole personal and social world just-so or it might all fall down around her. Madeline is the spoke of the Monterey mom circle, both in that she’s the center of everything and in that if she’s spun too hard, you get the impression that pieces will go flying about in all directions. Madeline is married to Ed (Adam Scott), who while not quite Ben Wyatt nevertheless can seem like the quintessential Decent American Man.
Madeline’s circle also includes Celeste Wright. Once again the role is cast to perfection: Nicole Kidman as a pristine, wealthy, slightly icy former lawyer — and half of a couple that’s so well-manicured that you just know something’s way off behind the scenes. Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) is her husband, free of surface flaws but bubbling with some kind of rage under the surface.
At the beginning of the series, a very non-Monterey mom enters the picture. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is easily 10 years younger than the other moms, decidedly moderate-income, and the single mother to little Ziggy (Iain Armitage AKA Iain Loves Theatre – don’t sleep on this kid). It’s a deliciously Shailene Woodley-esque role. Jane is a little crunchy, a little new-agey, and kind of lovably kooky. Still, you’ll have as many questions about her as you will about anyone else, some of which will be answered over the course of the first 4 episodes (there was a little glimpse of something in the first episode that suddenly made sense in the third, that kind of thing).
All of these characters have children in the same first-grade class, and the rest of the core circle revolves around the same classroom. Nathan Carson (James Tupper) is Madeline’s ex-husband, married to younger Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz, in a role I could have EASILY seen Lisa Bonet in a decade or so ago. Or maybe still? Woman hasn’t aged). Renata Klein (the fantastic Laura Dern) is the mother to Amabella, set at odds against Madeline’s clique when Amabella accuses Ziggy of hurting her during first grade orientation.
Unlike another little lies show you may know – Pretty Little Liars – this whodunnit (and to-whom-dunnit) won’t be dragged out for season upon season. Four episodes have aired, and there are three more to go. It’s a limited series, and director Jean-Marc Vallee has promised that “you will know everything.” Until then, I’m enjoying all of the questions.