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Big Little Lies - Somebody's Dead - Advance Preview

If you read nothing more of this review than this first paragraph then my message to you is watch Big Little Lies. If you love spectacular performances from award-winning actors then watch it. If you love visually stunning cinematography and direction from an Academy-nominated director (nominated as editor) then watch it. If you revel in soapy melodrama, then yes, watch it but be prepared…this exceptional cast turn melodrama into addictive quality movie theater viewing.

None of us know what happens behind the closed doors of our neighbors and friends. All of us hide secrets, harbor mysteries, conceal the darkness we all are capable of. Fear of being found out, of uprooting the perfect life leads to lying. Fear controls. Nothing is more evident than the lies and fears driving three women of the tranquil seaside town that is Monterey, California, providing the backdrop for this subversive darkly comedic drama miniseries. Based on the New York Times number-one bestseller of the same name by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies weaves a tale of
murder and mischief as it explores society’s myth of perfection and the contradictions that
exist beneath our idealized façade of marriage, sex, parenting and friendship.

With an exceptional award winning cast headed up by Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, Wild, Inherent Vice), Nicole Kidman (The Hours, To Die For, Moulin Rouge! The Hours, Rabbit Hole and The Paperboy, Hemingway & Gellhorn), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars) and Laura Dern (Wild, Rambling Rose, Enlightened, Recount, Afterburn) this seven-episode miniseries is splendidly addictive and consuming. It follows a now familiar pattern where big ticket talent is taking on the big-ticket telly.

Television is no longer the death of a movie career and what was once a wasteland is now the cutting edge. Old network and cable outlets have upped their game producing with courage, such as Empire on Fox or Game of Thrones on HBO. New ‘on demand/streaming’ studios are unshackled from network restraints to produce some of the best television of recent times such as Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on Amazon, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Boundaries have expanded, creativity is flourishing with less restriction and more risk. Shows can be ‘binge-watched’ like extended movie nights. In these bountiful television times, writing is better, smarter. Successful movie actors, directors, and writers have been seduced by television to experiment. Now the pressure is off producing 24 episodes for six months of the year they can produce eight or ten or twelve. Concentrating the writing, focussing the time and sharing the love. Such is the case for Witherspoon, Kidman, Woodley and Dern along with the rest of a truly stellar cast who bring to life Moriarty's novel. They don’t do it alone. Written and created by David E Kelley (Picket Fences, LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal and Goliath) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild) this is a presentation with a seductive flair.

Big Little Lies opens with a suspicious death at a school fundraiser as nervous townspeople narrate the lives of a seemingly perfect set of parents to police investigators. Secrets, insecurities and resentment swirl throughout the families of Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman), Jane (Woodley) and Renata (Dern) as fragile relationships start to unravel and the deep dark untold threatens to overwhelm.

This is beautiful television. With the benefit of singular writing and direction, the drama flows seamlessly from family to family and episode to episode with alluring architecture, lapping and crashing waves and beautiful panoramic open plan homes contrasting sharply with imperfect families unraveling. It is Desperate Housewives, through a Twin Peaks filter crossed with Sleeping With the Enemy. Violence, implicit and explicit, pervades in every story, through seemingly unconnected narratives.

It is difficult to keep focused though on the fact there was a murder in the first place. The premise is nothing new. This is Agatha Christie territory of establishing the groundwork that presents the case that everyone could be the victim and everyone could be the murderer, for we are kept in the dark about both. But so much is put into dissecting the lives of the main protagonists that the fact there was a murder at the end (or the beginning depending on how you look at it) is rather minimized. It’s down to the townspeople to remind us but after a while, the talking heads come across as just annoying.

In the series opener Somebody's Dead, newcomer Jane and her son Ziggy are welcomed to the school and community by longtime friends Madeline and Celeste who see a younger less affluent Jane as an ally and fellow confidante. Battle lines are drawn against Renata when an unseen bullying incident with the first grade children sets one set of parents against another and thus starts a parallel to the ‘grown up’ stories: Jane, hiding a gun under her pillow every night, whose mysterious past is staccato’d in flashback; the beautiful Celeste with her seemingly perfect marriage to the perfect husband with perfect twins hiding a disturbing truth under a veil and Madeline whose good intentions miss their mark frequently.

The real beauty of this series is the collective and individual performances of the stars without whom this show could easily have teetered into a vanity project. Reese Witherspoon offers a powerful engaging performance as Madeline, struggling to find her place while parenting daughters of different marriages and navigating husband v ex-husband dynamic. In the first few minutes, it appears that priggishness will overtake her but Witherspoon quickly brings the character a humility. Nicole Kidman is outstanding as the ‘statuesque beauty’ living the perfect life while burdened with unbearable secrets. Her unraveling of Celeste is Emmy territory and addictive viewing. I could expound the brilliant performances of all actually but one other stands out above an already strong pack: Laura Dern as the insecure crusader, terrifyingly protective of her child, neurotic but entirely believable.

Big Little Lies is beguiling. From Janis Joplin to the Temptations, Sade to Michael Kiwanuka and his Cold Little Heart, the eclectic and seductive soundtrack is designed to make the show ageless. And if the soundtrack itself doesn’t then watching an adorable six-year-old singing to Janis Joplin will surely do it. I think I know who’s dead but I can’t be sure (and I haven’t read the book) and I could guess at the murderer but I’m enjoying watching Witherspoon and friends push me deeper into their stories so much that I almost no longer worry that there is a murder to deal with.

The wider premise of this show is nothing new, a murder mystery in a ‘small town’, it’s been a stalwart of stage and screen for generations but Big Little Lies is textured, rich and enjoyable. Yes, it's a show based on affluence and privilege but it uniformly allows us to view those through the lens of imperfection. Besides, there’s a whole scene dedicated to "puppets fucking." That’s got to be worth it.

Big Little Lies starts SUNDAY, FEB. 19 (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.