'Big Little Lies': An Addictive Black Comedy About the Perils of Parenthood

'Big Little Lies,' starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, is great if you have a tolerance for spiteful characters who enjoy the good life.

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Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley in 'Big Little Lies.'
Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley in 'Big Little Lies.'Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayl / HBO / YES

As well as being suspiciously fond of the letter E, David E. Kelley has been one of television’s most consistent writers in recent decades. And I in turn, have consistently avoided pretty much all of his work since he co-created “Doogie Howser, M.D.” with Steven Bocho back in 1989.

So no one was more surprised than I when Kelley’s latest series, “Big Little Lies,” turned out to be completely addictive. Actually, I should qualify that: I’m not surprised “Big Little Lies” is huge fun, because it’s based on a real page-turner of a novel by Australian writer Liane Moriarty. I’m just surprised that Kelley hasn’t turned it into a series about lawyers in Boston, doctors in Boston, teachers in Boston, tea party members in Boston or well, you get the idea.

Moriarty’s 2014 best-seller has been relocated from a fictitious community north of Sydney to the picturesque coastal city of Monterey in California. Kelley has made other minor tweaks for the series – the main investigative detective is now female; Reese Witherspoon’s character does not play cricket while wearing high heels; the children are all slightly older (first-graders instead of at kindergarten); and some characters’ roles have been bumped up.

The basic killer idea remains, though: a murder is committed at a fundraising event for a school in a very swanky neighborhood, and we will spend the next seven episodes trying to work out both whodunit and, more unconventionally, who the victim is (#whodunin). Kelley was meant to deliver eight one-hour scripts to HBO, but found he only had enough story for seven – hence the odd number of episodes.

Of course, Kelley isn’t the reason “Big Little Lies” is receiving so much media attention. Rather, it’s the presence of those bona-fide movie stars Nicole Kidman and Witherspoon, who have finally deigned to appear on our small screens (give yourself a bonus point if you remembered the latter’s last TV appearance – as Rachel’s sister in “Friends”). Lest you doubt these actors’ clout, check out the end credits to see the number of assistants they have working for them (I counted 13, including two security guards).

Witherspoon initially optioned Moriarty’s novel with an eye on turning it into a movie (three other Moriarty novels, including arguably her best, “The Husband’s Secret,” are in various stages of development). But fate and a bidding war brought her to HBO, and the big screen’s loss is most definitely the small screen’s gain.

That said, your love of “Big Little Lies” may depend on your tolerance for bitchy characters who enjoy the good life: Even the Netanyahus might draw the line at some of the opulence on show here, as search parties are required to find those lost in the vast acreage of fitted kitchens, and couples stare into infinity pools as the sun sets over the Pacific.

Moriarty said she wrote the book as a response to becoming a mom at a relatively late stage in life, which left her looking “at the world of parenting with the wide eyes of a tourist.” What that translates into is a delightfully scabrous look at mummies of both the yummy and scummy varieties.

For example, the first language of Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Witherspoon) is snark, as she wages war on some of the other moms in daughter Chloe’s first-grade class. Or, as her second husband, Ed (Adam Scott; well cast), puts it, “I can’t keep track of all the fights you start – somebody needs to invent an app.”

Madeline sees mothers as belonging to one of two distinct camps: stay-at-home moms and career moms. Despite a part-time job marketing a theater, she aligns herself with the former camp. Alongside her is Celeste Wright (Kidman), a former lawyer who now dedicates her life to receiving compliments about her beauty, raising 6-year-old twin boys and handling her high-flying but dangerously volatile husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).

Madeline also “adopts” a young, single mom she meets on the school run, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), who reminds her of herself when she had her first child, 16 years ago.

The balancing act “Big Little Lies” has to achieve is in mockingly depicting the glamorous lifestyles – the gleaming SUVs, nannies, slim cappuccinos and yoga classes – while simultaneously addressing much darker issues. Two episodes in, it’s succeeding.

Each of the three main characters has a problem that gnaws away at her – including domestic violence, a traumatic incident and the ex-husband who’s moved on in his life and gets to shove that in the face of his former partner. Not too many laughs there, and there are some particularly bleak moments in the episodes ahead.

Luckily, the show’s structure frequently lightens the mood (and dilutes some of the more soapy elements): parents and school staffers are intercut into scenes, revealing tantalizing titbits while being quizzed by the police about the murder – the pick so far being the parent who declares, “Faeces is never far from Madeline’s fan” and the school principal, who brags that he invented the term “helicopter parent” before adding, “But these guys, they’re fucking kamikazes!”

The most divisive contribution comes from director Jean-Marc Vallée, who, somewhat unusually, directs all seven episodes. The French-Canadian filmmaker was initially due to only direct the first two, but found his arm being twisted to stay by Witherspoon, who worked with him on the Oscar-nominated movie “Wild” in 2014.

Vallée’s approach to filmmaking elevates the actors’ performances above all else, and he’s certainly succeeded in drawing uniformly excellent work from his cast. Witherspoon’s Madeline recalls her star-making turn as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s high-school comedy “Election” (1999) – this is what smart-aleck Tracy may well have turned out like. Kidman, meanwhile, brings such a haunted, vacant demeanor to her character, she may as well have been called Mary Celeste.

Vallée should also be commended for the natural performances he elicits from the many children, especially sweet little Ziggy (Iain Armitage, who’s just been cast as the young Sheldon in a prequel to “The Big Bang Theory”), and precocious moppet Chloe (Darby Camp).

But the problem with Vallée’s method – handheld cameras, natural lighting, real locations, multiple cameras shooting a scene – is that “Big Little Lies” can look pretty ugly at times. It could be argued that this aesthetic actually serves to contrast with the surface gloss of these characters’ fabulous homes and lives. But, dammit, if we’re going to be presented with these amazing beachfront villas, I’d like my property porn to look super slick and well-lit, not like a grubby sex tape.

It’s telling that four editors were needed to cut the show together after its three-month shoot – a truly Herculean task. But as “Big Little Lies” proves, as jobs go, it’s still a lot easier than parenting. As these moms (and dads) shamelessly look to one-up each other, it’s impossible not to recall Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”

“Big Little Lies” airs on Tuesdays on HOT Plus HBO at 22.00 and Yes Oh at 23.00.