‘Big Little Lies’ features big-time performances, little originality

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO/Courtesy
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO/Courtesy

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Call them the Desperate Mothers of Monterey Bay. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley star in David E. Kelley’s soapy HBO drama “Big Little Lies,” a seven-part miniseries chronicling the individual narratives of three moms whose picture-perfect lives become unraveled by infidelity, domestic abuse and, of course, murder.

Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, “Big Little Lies” is as campy as its title suggests. Starring as Madeline Mackenzie — a high-spirited mother of two who reigns over the halls of Otter Bay Public with a reputation mirroring that of Regina George from “Mean Girls” — Reese Witherspoon brings plenty of exhilarating charm and life to her dreaded character. Madeline’s “perfect life” as a mother and happily married wife is an interminable façade defined by jealousy over her ex-husband’s wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), an extramarital affair with a local Monterey theater runner and her unruly teenage daughter, Abigail. Embracing a take-no-prisoners persona while rocking premium clothes and high heels, Madeline demonstrates the type of unapologetic tenacity that would rival Gwendolyn from “Bad Moms.”

Masquerading as a happily married mother of two is Mackenzie’s confidante Celeste Wright, played by Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman. A former lawyer, Celeste leads a supposedly immaculate life as a housewife raising her two sons while caring for Perry, her volatile husband played by Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. Plagued by domestic violence by her spouse, Celeste steadily excuses Perry’s abuse as anger that regularly turns into nonconsensual passion. As the series progresses, Celeste and Perry visit a counselor to rectify their marriage, which instantly results in the battered mother finding new avenues to escape her overbearing partner. Kidman’s performance as a victim of abuse living in denial is nothing revolutionary by today’s extensive scope of female characters in television, but the Australian thespian still effortlessly captivates the small screen with her award-winning acting abilities and unparalleled grace.

Last but certainly not least, Golden Globe-nominated actor Shailene Woodley manages to hold her own in “Big Little Lies” among the show’s all-star ensemble as the mystifying Jane Chapman. A struggling single mother, Jane moves to Monterey to escape her murky past and build a brighter future for herself and her son, Ziggy. Taken under Madeline and Celeste’s wings, Jane finds herself in decent company as she acclimates to her newfound life along the coastal city. This adjustment proves anything but smooth for Jane as she replays her sexual assault by Ziggy’s father, Saxon Baker, via flashbacks and defends her son from accusations of bullying. Woodley’s earnest portrayal of a rape victim is also nothing groundbreaking, but her performance is a far-reaching improvement from her earlier days as a pregnant teen on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

Within the first six episodes of “Big Little Lies,” a twisted homicide investigation gradually ensues as witness testimonies from parents at Otter Bay Public all point to Madeline, Celeste and Jane as prime suspects. It is clear, however, that each mother is guilty of one thing: living a “perfect life” that is a “perfect lie.”

Though “Big Little Lies” follows its dark comedy genre to a tee, Kelley’s melodramatic series is easily outdone by its reinforcement of character clichés and predictable storylines. Between intrusive parents from Otter Bay spreading malicious gossip about Madeline, Celeste and Jane and Madeline’s depiction of the vivacious, over-the-top queen bee who ignites fear wherever she travels, HBO’s newest series nearly falls under the vein of a frothy Lifetime drama.

A guilty pleasure that might behoove dedicated fans of classics such as “Desperate Housewives” and “Pretty Little Liars” to keep their HBO subscriptions and watch, “Big Little Lies” offers something for everyone, despite falling into cliché territory. Whether it is murder and mystery or occasional nudity and dark humor, Kelley’s series will have you sipping a glass of red wine while watching a salacious story unfold.

“Big Little Lies” airs Sundays on HBO at 9 p.m.

Jordan Joyner covers TV. Contact him at [email protected].