TV Tryouts – Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies (HBO)
Season 1, Episode 1 – “Somebody’s Dead”

Written by David E. Kelly
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

There is so much television I hear I should watch and with 24/7 streaming services abounding it can quickly become overwhelming. To finally get a taste of all these great shows I will start doing TV Tryouts. Each month I will watch a couple of pilot episodes of series I have been hearing rave reviews about and see if that first episode can hook me to keep watching. Now, an argument you might make is that you have to view the first six or entire first season before a show “gets good.” To that, I say, “I just don’t have the time.” A television series should have strong enough writing that its characters, dialogue, and plot naturally compel me to keep watching. If it doesn’t then that’s ok, plenty of shows for everyone.

Monterey, California becomes the site of a murder that occurs during a fundraiser trivia event for a local elementary school. The identity of the deceased is obscured, and instead, we get intercut witness interviews and flashbacks that spotlight the women who will be the central characters in our series. The main character is Madeline Martha McKenzie, a wealthy PTO mom whose day job is running the community theater. Her production of Avenue Q has been met with a petition to stop its performance. On Martha’s way to the first day of school with her daughter, she meets Jane, a newcomer to the city who has a son the same age as Martha’s child. They strike up a friendship which allows Martha to introduce Jane to other important characters in the story. All of this culminates during dismissal when the daughter of Renta Klein, a very strong-willed parent, claims Jane’s son tried to choke her. Somehow this accusation will lead to the murder of someone involved.

So as far as the tryout part of this review, I am sold on Big Little Lies. It hooked me in just the right the way (and with only seven episodes in the first season) that I will be watching this whole series. The most effective selling point for me was the acting line-up: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley. There are also some great character actors in that “hey, don’t I know them from something” category who add to the fleshing out of the world. From the premise alone, this sounds like a typical network series that would be exploitative (a la Dynasty), but the tone is played for comedy and thoughtful drama in the right moments.

My favorite performances lately have been those of older actors, particularly older women. Laura Dern has become one of those actors who draws me to a project despite any hesitancies other elements might give me. Dern’s range is glorious, and she can play the most tender and most aggressive characters with ease. Her portrayal of Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return is arguably the best performance in that series. We don’t get too much of her in this opening episode of Big Little Lies, but the scenes she does have, give her a showcase to present a woman that contains simmering anger and frustration. There are hints of how she’s been affected by men taking advantage of her that fuels her reaction to finding out Jane’s son is accused of choking her daughter. The writing never pins her down as a “hysterical woman” but also highlights the social awkwardness of her actions in front of the whole class’ parents. It also doesn’t help that the teacher bungles things by allowing this calling out right in front of everyone, rather than having a private meeting.

I have gone back and forth about Reese Witherspoon over the years, more for her choice of material than her actual acting ability. The role of Madeline is an excellent chance for her to incorporate those traits she cultivated in Tracy Flick or Elle Woods but with more depth of humanity than either of those characters allowed her. Madeline is introduced as a bubbly, exuberant figure who feels awkward if silence goes on for too long. It’s later in her home, with her children, that we see more of her layers. She’s caught up in thoughts of how her two daughters are getting older and her identity as a mother will be gone. Being a mom is crucially important to her, beyond the trappings of this particular wealthy culture she finds herself in. There’s tension between Madeline and her husband and Bonnie, his new wife. Madeline’s girls participate in activities when they are with Bonnie that is growing their perception of marginalized communities and, Madeline knows she hasn’t been diligent in teaching her girls to be aware of the broader scope of the world. It’s a very empathic performance and portrayal that could have been a caricature.

There’s a lot more I sense will be developed out over the course of this first season and it appeals to the Twin Peaks lover in me, that idea of the darkness of private lives in a seemingly friendly, polite community of the privileged. The hook of the murder with even the victim kept hidden from the audience is a great way to make me want to come back for the next episode. Enough information is given about these characters that I could see any one of them being murdered or committing the act. Director Vallée also uses non-linear editing to jumpcut to scenes that sometimes happen in the future and other times are flashbacks. Big Little Lies has all the things I am looking for, so keep an eye out for a full series review soon.

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