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HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’ is Filled with Big Mysteries
February 18, 2017  | By David Hinckley

HBO would love to ride Big Little Lies back to the top of the pay-cable drama mountain.

With Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley (all at top) in the lead roles when the series premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, it has the star power.

Whether it has the horses may depend on viewer patience. While a tale of restless discontent in a rich California coastal town offers an intriguing ride, it’s also a deliberate one. Think of it as a Sunday drive, at a leisurely pace that enables the passengers to absorb every detail of the scenery.

This reflects the slow burn in the Liane Moriarty mystery on which the series is based. It stretches over seven parts in the HBO version, and honestly, it could probably handle the nuts and bolts of the story in fewer than that.

But the same could be said of HBO’s biggest recent limited series, The Night Of, and even some past HBO hits like Boardwalk Empire, where the appeal often stemmed from atmosphere as much as action.

Big Little Lies unfolds in Monterey, a town dripping with money and largely populated, it seems, with women for whom that is not enough.

Witherspoon plays Madeline Mackenzie, who gave up her career to be an affluent mom and, 15 years after her divorce, can’t seem to break emotionally free of her first husband.

Kidman plays Madeline’s bestie Celeste Wright, the apparent golden girl with the perfect blond twin boys and the perfect husband. That doesn’t explain why she and Mr. Wright seem to need emotionally and physically abusive foreplay that leads to rough, violent sex.

As the story begins, Madeline and Celeste adopt a third pal, newcomer Jane Chapman (Woodley), whose presence is a mystery since financially she’s nowhere near the Monterey league.

We soon gather that Jane does have secrets. She also has a first-grade child, which gives her common ground with Madeline, Celeste and an army of other Monterey women awash in an ocean of neuroses.  

Big Little Lies spends considerable time laying out the restless lives of these troubled white suburban women, which would not in itself distinguish it from a hundred other TV shows.

What does set it apart is that someone in this town, which prides itself so strongly on surface decorum, seems to be a killer.

We learn early in the first episode that there’s been a murder, and we repeatedly flash to scenes of the police providing details. Blunt force trauma. Broken bones. No suspect so far.

What we don’t learn for a while, quite a while really, is the identity of the victim.

That’s part of the dramatic setup, which is fine, and spawns a perhaps unintended consequence: Absent the details of our murder mystery, we become more aware of how much time we spend watching the mothers and some of the fathers of Monterey splashing through major psychological crises about themselves and their kids.

Big chunks of the plot could have been transplanted straight from Desperate Housewives, which is probably why Big Little Lies is being promoted as a comic drama. Just don’t look for ha-ha funny, and don’t worry if you spend a lot of time just enjoying the presence and the work of these pretty little grown-up liars.

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