Saturday, March 11, 2017

Mommy Issues: HBO’s Big Little Lies

Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman in HBO's Big Little Lies.

At first glance, the star power involved with David E. Kelley’s small-screen adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies is so dazzling that it’s easy to believe that this is like nothing you’ve ever seen on TV before. Keep looking, though, and you’ll be able to easily compare the show, which premiered February 19 and airs on Sunday nights on HBO, to other television offerings. That comparison, once made, isn’t always terribly flattering to the new arrival.

The marquee names attached to Big Little Lies include Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, and Reese Witherspoon, with the latter two also serving as executive producers. The show traces the disturbances caused by the arrival of Woodley’s Jane Chapman, an underemployed single mom, and her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) in the posh seaside neighborhood of Monterey, California. When Ziggy is accused of assaulting the daughter of the high-powered Renata Klein (Laura Dern), it pits Klein against Jane and her self-appointed champion Madeline (Witherspoon), setting in motion a series of events that culminate in a murder in the midst of a trivia night event. Kelley obscures the identity of both the victim and the perpetrator of that crime, giving us brief glimpses of the initial stages of the police investigation into the murder, as well as snippets of interviews with members of the community, in between longer scenes that slowly walk us through the backstory leading up to the killing.

Ignore, for a moment, the show’s A-list cast and home on a premium cable channel, and its basic plotline might start to sound more familiar, like something out of a season of Desperate Housewives. The value of the comparison is further enhanced by considering some of Kelley’s work, such as Ally McBeal. Both Ally and Housewives were shows that blended some of the basic elements of network drama with quirky and oftentimes rather dark senses of humor to leaven or even comment upon the more serious tropes of the primetime soap opera genre. Big Little Lies suffers by contrast, which may be partly Kelley’s fault and partly the fault of Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed every episode of the series. It’s hard to quantify, but I couldn’t shake a sense of a wanness to the Monterey of this series, both in the way Vallée shoots the town and in the uncharacteristically serious tone of Kelley’s scripts for the initial episodes (I’ve seen the first two as of this writing). True, the show revolves around a murder mystery, and there are some disturbing elements such as the abusive but also borderline sado-masochistic relationship between Kidman’s Celeste and her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), but Wisteria Lane also had no shortage of lurid goings-on, either, and that didn’t prevent Desperate Housewives from maintaining a wry sense of perspective on its characters.

Laura Dern in Big Little Lies.

If the writing and direction don’t always serve them well, the cast still offers some interesting performances. Witherspoon’s especially engaging as Madeline, crafting a portrait of a type-A personality who’s slowly being consumed by regrets about her past and who overcompensates by barging into situations in which she’s either out of her depth or doesn’t really have a stake worth fighting for. (There’s a disposable but amusing subplot about her battle to keep her community theatre group’s production of Avenue Q from being shut down.) Madeline’s clearly still in love with her first husband Nathan (James Tupper), despite the facts that he’s moved on and started a new family with his wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and that she’s now trying to do the same with her second husband, Ed (Adam Scott). Witherspoon’s scenes with Scott are surprisingly compelling; Scott’s been wonderful in comic roles such as Ben Wyatt on Parks and Recreation or the delightfully louche demon Trevor in Mike Schur’s brilliant afterlife comedy The Good Place, but I worried that he’d follow in the path of Kristen Wiig and Steve Carell, skilled comic actors whose pursuit of prestige in serious roles often feels like a waste of their talents. However, Scott’s able to leverage the slight sense of pathos that always hovered around the put-upon Ben and turn it into something more nuanced. He has a nice little moment, when Madeline’s continuing feelings for Nathan become evident in the middle of a conversation about another topic, where he registers Ed’s hurt and makes a visible effort to sweep the matter aside, telling her as calmly as possible that they’ll have a big fight about it later.

Kidman and Woodley are two big-name actresses whose work I’ve never quite responded to with much enthusiasm, and in the latter’s case, at least, I’m not sure my opinion’s changed by her appearance here. Her Jane is meant to be mysterious, visibly down-at-heels in one of the most well-heeled towns in the country and harboring some dark secret from her past, but it registers more as a lack of definition in her character. The contrast with Kidman is striking; her Celeste could be a pathetic figure, but there’s something both inexplicable and deeply discomfiting about her sexually-charged response to her husband’s violence, and Kidman has a compelling ability to convey that disturbing quality. Lastly, there’s Laura Dern, who’s stuck in a rather thankless role as the seemingly innocent Jane’s tightly-wound antagonist. There are a few half-hearted attempts to flesh out Renata, but she mostly comes off badly, which is especially awkward since she’s initially introduced to us (via Madeline) as a successful professional who juggles motherhood and a career.

Big Little Lies seems to invite us to look down upon people like Renata, and even, at times, Madeline, and the privileged community that they represent. The problem is that this leaves us in a no-man’s-land (or no-woman’s-land, perhaps, given the show’s focus on its female characters): we don’t have enough to go on to unreservedly root for Woodley’s Jane, but we’re rarely given much of a reason to care too deeply or get especially attached to her wealthy neighbors. They may be desperate, and some of them might be housewives, but these women aren’t quite in the same league as their more illustrious predecessors on television.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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