We open with a murder! All right, now we're talking. Someone has been murdered at a school fundraiser/gala/trivia night, and as members of the Monterey community provide their gossip-laden testimonies, we flashback to meet the characters in play. Madeline, as played by Reese Witherspoon, is very Tracy Flick-as-a-mom, aggressive and curt but full of good intentions, as she quickly befriends newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley, fully graduating from teen dramas to convincing adult roles), a single mom with a mysterious past. Madeline's best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman giving the kind of award-winning performance whose strength is in its subtlety, not its showiness) appears to have the perfect life, but there are some troubling aspects about her relationship with her husband. They're all witness to an incident that puts Jane at odds with Renata (Laura Dern, giving a villainous character the humanity she deserves). Oh, also, Madeline hates her ex-husband's new wife Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz, selling a very hippie granola character without turning her into a joke). Are you still following me? Because by the end of the pilot, we realize that we, of course, don't know who the killer is. That's to be expected. But we also...we also don't know who the victim is.
Well, that's new.
Here's the amazing thing about this show, though: the murder double mystery, which is such a cool hook, quickly fades into the background. You think you're watching these flashbacks to figure out the mystery, but, no, the flashbacks are a compelling story all on their own. I became utterly caught up in the lives of these characters and their petty squabbles and their terrible marriages and their dark secrets, thanks to a number of elements. First of all, the incredible performances. Each actor refuses to make their character a caricature; not a single character on this show—even the unquestionably worst one—is fully "good" or "bad." Everyone has layers and depth, and we see it in their faces—Nicole Kidman can tell a whole story with the camera lingering on her face as it changes expressions—and in the frequent quick edits/flashes that illuminate a character's inner thoughts, both of which require you to pay close attention to the screen. I loved this latter technique, frustrating as it could have been, because it plays into the recurring theme of the series, which is that everyone is so much more than what you see on the surface. We see people having perfectly normal conversations, but, just like in real life, they're thinking of something else, something traumatic, something untrue, something wishful. It's such a great representation of how our minds work, as opposed to sitting in extended flashbacks. With writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallèe on every episode—and may I just say I am shocked and relieved that two men adapted a woman's novel about women so well—the show has a consistency in tone and mood and style that's mesmerizing visually and aurally, down to the soundtrack, as characters are constantly listening to songs on their iPods (episodes tend to end on songs that make you want to sit through the credits and decompress).
This could have easily been some trashy show about rich, white neurotic housewives, trafficking in cliché after cliché, but the complex performances and artful directing prove it's more than it seems. Throughout its seven episodes, the show follows multiple narratives, and as it heads into the finale, the specter of the murder rises again, as we can see the seeds of conflicts that could lead to violence. The finale was so tense I could not bear it, as I had become so attached to these characters I did not want any of them to die (well, there was one I wouldn't have minded). I was close to tears multiple times, and then the emotion hits its peak in a culmination of interweaving narratives like I've never seen, a revelatory catharsis, and this is beautiful storytelling, people, this is what I watch things for, this is the feeling I want to create in readers. As the show was ending, I did not want it to end, I had been so sucked into this world, but I also knew it should end and not be tainted by a second season. This one was executed so well, and a second could not replicate the magic, as much as I'd want to see how the remaining characters moved on from this.
Big Little Lies is not my typical viewing fare. I love murder mysteries, but this is not a murder mystery, it's a suburban domestic drama about, honestly, subjects I can't relate to, like the difficulties of marriage and motherhood and how motherhood is far more complicated than it is often portrayed. Also more complicated than it is often portrayed? Women and their relationships (seriously, how did two dudes not screw this up). Plus the child actors are wonderful! I'm getting off track because this is one of those shows where I want to start listing all the things that are great about it at the end, so I'll rein it in. You want to see some great fucking television? Big Little Lies is worth seven hours of your time.