‘Big Little Lies’ Pilot Recap: “What’d We Say About Shooting Mom Before Noon?”

HBO’s new drama series ‘Big Little Lies’ is a prestige production stacked with multiple Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy winners and nominees both in front of and behind the camera. Ultimately, that seems like kind of a waste of talent for what turns out to be an overly-arty and pretentious knockoff of ‘Desperate Housewives’.

Promoted as a limited series event of just seven episodes, the show is based on a bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty, adapted for television by prolific producer David E. Kelley, whose mantle practically overflows with Emmys. All seven episodes are directed by Oscar nominee Jean-Marc Vallée (‘Dallas Buyers Club’). The cast is headlined by Nicole Kidman (Oscar and Golden Globe winner, Emmy nominee), Reese Witherspoon (Oscar and Golden Globe winner), Laura Dern (Golden Globe winner, Oscar and Emmy nominee), and Shailene Woodley (Golden Globe nominee). I only harp on this to point out how blatantly this production was created for the purposes of being awards bait.

Woodley plays Jane Chapman, a young mom who has just recently moved to Monterey, an upscale community largely populated by people far wealthier than herself. As we’ll learn over the course of the pilot episode, she’s trying to start a new life and flee from an abusive ex. While driving her young son Ziggy to his first day of school, Jane is brought into the orbit of high-strung socialite housewife Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon), whose spoiled daughter is in the same first grade class. Madeline immediately takes Jane under her wing as a charity case. Among those she introduces her to is her friend Celeste (Kidman), a fragile bird who seems to have a too-perfect life with an adoring, studly husband (Alexander Skarsgård) and precocious twin boys also in the same class. Little do Madeline or any of her other friends know, Celeste’s husband has a violent temper behind closed doors.

When the time comes to pick their children up from school, Jane is informed that Ziggy has been accused of trying to strangle a little girl in the class. The boy denies this, and nobody else saw what actually happened. Jane believes her son, even as we in the audience quickly identify him as a little serial killer in the making (a trait he undoubtedly inherited from the dad Jane never told him about). Complicating this He Said/She Said situation is the unfortunate fact the alleged victim’s mother is high-powered, uber-bitch corporate executive Renata Klein (Dern), who refuses to let the matter go quietly. In an irony laid thick with a trowel, she rants endlessly about needing to stand up to bullies even as she herself is the biggest bully of all. As a result of her overreaction, battle lines are drawn between the moms in the community. Madeline rallies her friends and her resources to Jane’s defense while others cower behind Renata.

This entire storyline is framed within a flash-forward murder mystery in which police detectives question gossipy neighbors and onlookers about how these events tie in with the suspicious death of… someone. The identity of the victim is withheld in the show’s pilot episode, and I image may not be revealed until the finale.

Episode Verdict

This show obviously has a great cast. (In addition to those already mentioned, other notable faces include Adam Scott as Madeline’s pushover husband and Zoë Kravitz as her previous husband’s new trophy wife.) Vallée directs it like a glossy art film, filled with disorienting P.O.V. sequences and disjointed non-linear time jumps.

For all that, the actual story is pretty silly soap opera stuff in which every character has a dark secret and they’re all somehow connected to the central murder. The milieu screams ‘Desperate Housewives Redux’, while the warring parents storyline strives for social satire by shamelessly lifting from ‘Carnage‘ (or, if you want to sound like a cultured smartypants, the original play ‘God of Carnage’).

The conceit of not revealing the murder victim is a cheap hook that I found infuriating. How are we supposed to feel invested in the outcome of this if we don’t even know what’s at stake?

Also, the title is stupid.

This isn’t something I care about or need to watch again.

Grade: C

1 comment

  1. Ryan

    I still plan to give the show a shot once more eps have aired. I had wanted to read the book, and now I won’t have to. Plus I like the cast

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