I recently attended an advance screening of the pilot for the new HBO limited series Big Little Lies ; an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name. Just waiting in line and endeavoring to find a seat in the throng that showed up for the event was a character study opportunity in itself, but eventually viewers were seated and a brief thanks and announcement of the 7 episode series’ official television debut (Tonight, February 19th @ 8 PM CT) was issued.
Lights were dimmed and the pilot, written by David E. Kelley ( Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, The Practice ) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Demolition, Wild), began. I had not read the book, so I was a blank slate for the story that unfolded before me. All I knew was that the lead cast was composed of talented women: Reese Witherspoon (Madeline Martha Mackenzie), Nicole Kidman (Celeste Wright), Shailene Woodley (Jane Chapman), Zoë Kravitz (Bonnie Carlson), and Laura Dern (Renata Klein). Vallée was expected to use his signature penchant for “exploring the edges of everyday suffering and struggle“ and Kelley was expected to take the raw materials of Moriarty’s novel and put them in his subversive yet anti-didactic, consciousness challenging recipe.
“Often we try to seduce the audience at the beginning that this is going to be fun, a romp or a ride, and then once the ride has begun, to reveal some serious subject matter for them to think about” – Levine, David E Kelley: The Man Behind Ally McBeal. p. 31
Vallée presents shadowy images of a masquerade party’s ruins and soon we learn that someone has died at that party. Minor characters give insight to our core cast via an interrogation about the apparent murder. We meet our core cast as mothers taking their 6 year-old children to orientation day of first grade. Young Jane Chapman and her son Ziggy are new to the affluent coastal Monterey, California. Shailene Woodley is endearing as always and draws the viewer into the plight of Jane. She is quickly befriended by Madeline Martha Mackenzie and Celeste Wright. Reese works her flawless type-A technique with some added depth in her portrayal of Mackenzie; she quickly conveys the hierarchy at work in the community of stay-at-home moms and working moms. Nicole Kidman is Celeste Wright, the mother of twin boys. Celeste is quiet and composed in a way that makes her frequently seem like a peaceful and beautiful painting, but just as it is in life, the viewer learns that she isn’t as carefree as the casual observer might assume. Laura Dern is Renata Klein, a successful working mom that occupies seats on corporate and school boards, but as powerful as she is, the power to be liked by all alludes her. Zoë Kravitz is the painfully likeable yogi Bonnie Carlson, she serves as the laid-back “earth-mother” contrast to the other “tiger-moms”.
Kelley sets the table in this pilot and it’s an intriguing, lavish, quirky, and glossy spread with elements that I recognize and a few that leave me wondering how they will be utilized in the meal itself. It seems to be a down-to-earth farce, which can be very enjoyable, but while some might prefer such dramatic foreplay, I am an impatient millennial that would have been overjoyed for this miniseries to have been released for immediate binging. As it is I guess I, like Jane Chapman, will have to wait and see how things turn out in Monterey. The spread is too promising to miss.