In other hands (such as Bravo’s or Lifetime’s), the seven-episode HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies” would seem like one more needless, farcical ascent to higher income brackets to scrutinize the gossipy, status-conscious and downright mean lifestyles of the upper crust. Zeroing in on women usually, these tales specialize in disdain for the cliques of yoga-toned mama bears who’ve turned parenting into a brutally competitive sport and dedicated their lives to seeming perfect.
More than a decade since the arrival of “Desperate Housewives” and “Real Housewives,” television is now forever strewn with similar stories (imagined or “real”) of women who seem incapable of treating one another with kindness and respect. The bite is often meant as a kind of moral satire, but, in the aggregate, it amounts to a depressing statement about the entire gender. It’s also a wildly popular genre.
“Big Little Lies,” which premieres Sunday night, is certainly filled with the tropes of mommy blogs and dagger-eyed encounters in the school pickup/drop-off lane. But the series is so exquisitely conceived and structured — and so remarkably acted by a top-notch cast that includes two of Hollywood’s most resolute performers, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon — that the soapy layer quickly rinses away in the first episode. What remains is a deeply absorbing, highly addictive murder mystery matched with a carefully considered psychological work-up of an elite community.
Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s best-selling 2014 novel, the plot of “Big Little Lies” has been relocated from its original Australian setting to Monterey, Calif., the idyllic seaside town where a local elementary school, Otter Bay, is considered so excellent that it attracts the pampered children of techie zillionaires who live in the cliffside homes along the beach. The hothouse atmosphere is palpable on orientation day, as beautiful moms and dads arrive with their beautiful, eager first-graders.
Among the adults is Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon), a nosy and talkative Queen Bee doing her best to ignore the fact that her daughter, Chloe (Darby Camp), is in the same class as a half-sister, the child of Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), and his second wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz). Mingling about, Madeline introduces her best friend, Celeste Wright (Kidman), who gave up a legal career to focus on her twin boys, to Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a young single mom who just moved to Monterey.
Soon enough there is major drama, when Amabella (Ivy George), the daughter of a successful venture capitalist, Renata Klein (Laura Dern), accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), of trying to choke her. Cries of bullying and assault are initially mishandled by a teacher, while Madeline rushes to defend Jane and Ziggy, mostly because she’s never liked Renata.
Chronologically, “Big Little Lies” is structured as a walk-back, as police investigate a murder that occurred at the school’s Elvis-and-Audrey-Hepburn-themed gala fundraiser, some weeks after school started and during a period of heightened animosities. The story is spliced together with witness accounts from a rabble of other parents, school administrators and the like — all of them too eager to share rumors about one another.
Could a playground spat get this out of control? “Big Little Lies” suggests so, but it also thoroughly probes beneath the surfaces of Madeline, Celeste and Renata’s marital and personal difficulties. It also uncovers Jane’s darkest secret. Husbands factor prominently in the narrative (as one witness explains to the cops, “It wasn’t just the mothers”), especially Celeste’s frighteningly abusive spouse, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and Madeline’s emotionally neglected second husband, Ed (Adam Scott).
“Big Little Lies” is also, to my recollection, the rare drama that treats children as key characters rather than incidental nuisances, demanding performances from its youngest cast members that other shows would use mainly as precocious walk-ons. It’s a task that nearly all the children in “Big Little Lies” manage to fulfill, to such a degree that it’s tempting to consider the story entirely from their perspectives.
That’s only a passing thought, however, since Witherspoon and Kidman have clearly decided that “Big Little Lies” is not merely a chance to dabble in prestige TV. Even though they’re both playing to type (Kidman once again as an ethereally composed woman facing sexual and physical violence; Witherspoon as another self-absorbed busybody who hits a breaking point), they have each outdone themselves here, bringing to their roles a real sense for the contours of pain, as well as a mature, wry sense of humor.
I don’t know how “Big Little Lies” ends (HBO coyly sent all but the final episode), but, having read around in Moriarty’s novel (avoiding the conclusion), I know just enough to realize that tone means everything in the task of turning this story into a strong TV show. Sure, tone almost always means everything, but “Big Little Lies” succeeds from a perfect collaboration between a script-writing producer, David E. Kelley (yes, of “Ally McBeal”), and a film director, Jean-Marc Vallée, who so artfully directed Witherspoon and Dern in the 2014 film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s solo-hike memoir, “Wild,” turning that book into a strangely effective collage of memory and stamina.
In television, script-writing is often accomplished through a group effort overseen by a showrunner, while directing is handed off from episode to episode. Here, Kelley wrote and Vallee directed every episode of “Big Little Lies,” which not only heightens continuity (we’re basically looking at a seven-hour film), it once again makes me wish that more of the new shows we’re getting these days would commit themselves to a single, terrific season — a contained story, rather than a launching pad for a long saga.
Between Kelley’s knack for melding irony and suffering and Vallée’s dreamy attention to the illusions that prop up the characters’ coastal California bliss, “Big Little Lies” becomes a sinfully pleasurable and even thought-provoking experience.
Big Little Lies (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.