Arts & Entertainment, Features

REVIEW: “Big Little Lies” is lavish, but vague

Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley star in HBO’s new television series, “Big Little Lies.” PHOTO COURTESY HILARY BRONWYN GAYLE

HBO has a long history of lavish visuals and extravagant set designs, as seen in television juggernauts such as “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld.” The network’s new miniseries, “Big Little Lies,” premiered on Sunday evening, and although the setting and premise of the program is less fantastical than those of its grandiose counterparts, the new addition is an equally, if not more, stunning visual masterpiece of luxury that immerses viewers into a vague and mysterious plot.

Set in the wealthy and scenic seaside town of Monterey, California, the program cuts abruptly between brief and intriguing scenes of dramatic intensity. The first quarter of the hour-long program hinges entirely on attention snippets, none of which offer more than a tidbit of information. Albeit disorienting, this juxtaposition is a captivating approach to exposition. It demands complete attention, lest the viewer blink and miss a defining moment of context.

The premiere episode introduces a complex and dynamic ensemble in something of a piecemeal fashion, through the eyes of three leading women and numerous supporting characters.

Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is an attention-demanding matriarch and parental socialite while her best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), has a doting husband and a carefree attitude toward the privileged cards she was dealt. In contrast, Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a young, struggling single mother, whose concerns are etched into a perpetually furrowed brow.

With countless nominations between Witherspoon, Kidman and Woodley, there is no question that their performances as unique and intricate characters are cultivated with depth and adept technique. Madeline’s envy and desire for a socially powerful position is given a penetrating intensity through Witherspoon’s skills. Moreover, the gentility and concern of Jane is granted fragility and pain furnished by Woodley, whose portfolio already contains several similar roles. Celeste, who lacks major developments in her free-spirited and seemingly happy lifestyle, becomes something of an enigmatic wildcard with Kidman’s charm.

Hinging upon character development rather than plot, the rapid succession of scenes and conflict juxtaposition make it difficult to discern any substantial details beyond that conveyed in the title of the episode, “Somebody’s Dead.” Indeed, somebody is dead, but it is unclear who, exactly, that “somebody” is, and why they are dead. The only certainty is that the death was not accidental, nor self-inflicted.

The premiere focuses less on the act of homicide and more so on cultivating intrigue through conflict, presenting a subplot that proposes an eerily tense situation of false accusation. A first grade girl, enrolled in the same elementary school as the children of Madeline, Celeste and Jane, is hurt on orientation day. Pointing to Jane’s son, Ziggy, a new classmate who claims he is innocent, the girl unknowingly forms entrenched divisions between parents who escalate conflicts and facilitate ostracization. Although only a brief portion of the episode is devoted to this scenario, the clenching tension developed therein feels allusory to not only historical instances of wrongful accusation but also to potential outcomes in the future of “Big Little Lies.”

This subplot, alluding as it is, plays a fairly minor role in suggesting anything more than pre-existing connections and divisions. The thematically accusatory subtext of the situation notwithstanding, it is clear that the program is designed for serialization and a big picture plot arc that will develop over the seven episodes of the miniseries.

Handily directed by Oscar-nominated Jean-Marc Vallée, the program is, if nothing else, a work of visually beautiful, albeit disorienting, artistry. In a one-two punch of mystery and aesthetic appeal, “Big Little Lies” is captivating and demands long-term attention for the entirety of the miniseries.

It is near impossible to foresee any outcomes of conflict resolution, as the shaky, twisting paths of the program offer infinite possibilities with no clear path. Loose ends will remain untied and tangled, only to be slowly, painstakingly knotted as the miniseries comes to fruition over the course of several weeks.

Perhaps the only certainty is the marvelously beautiful scenery of Monterey, instigating an intrigue and disillusion that will make the ultimate outcome of “Big Little Lies” – whatever that outcome may be — startling and jarring to a new extreme.

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