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‘Big Little Lies’ a Mélange of Mediocrity in a Pretty Package

Reese Witherspoon in "Big Little Lies"
Seven minutes into the premiere episode of “Big Little Lies,” two of the four main characters meet. Their first exchange sounds like something out of an unexceptional children’s book: “Well, I’m Madeline Martha MacKenzie! I always say the Martha, but no one calls me that! They call me Madeline,” Reese Witherspoon chirps. “I’m Jane, Jane No-Middle-Name Chapman,” Shailene Woodley responds with a halfhearted curtsy. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that her teenage roles are far too recent for her to play the mother of a seven-year-old in HBO’s newest miniseries.

And just like that, the two women become fast friends. It might appear at this point in the episode that “Big Little Lies” is just another lackluster television show about rich white wine moms who sit around spreading rumors all day. However, the scene’s moodily subdued color scheme and the preceding flash-forward clip of police cars and witness interviews may remind the viewer that these wine moms will soon find themselves embroiled in a murder. The show’s premise hinges on the seeming incongruity of gossipy mothers and violent crime. But the real mismatch is between the show’s stunning visual beauty and its subpar writing and acting.

“Big Little Lies” introduces main characters whose lives are so picturesque that there has to be something deeply disturbing brewing beneath the surface. The first episode hints at the turmoil the characters are facing behind the closed doors of their Monterey beachfront mansions: Madeline is jealous of her ex-husband’s beautiful and bohemian new wife; Celeste Wright (a vaguely Lana Del Rey-looking Nicole Kidman) may be suffering domestic abuse; and Jane’s young son—Ziggy—has been accused of brutally choking the daughter of Renata Klein (Laura Dern). Presumably, these tensions will eventually escalate to the point of murder, though the chain of events remain unclear. For now, the viewer is given a glimpse only into the four mothers’ day-to-day drama, which, with the exception of the startling violence committed against Renata’s daughter, seems contrived and clichéd.

The show’s surprisingly talented young actors provide some of its best moments. Ziggy (Iain Armitage), for instance, effortlessly embodies a combination of innocent (“Shouldn’t we make sure the lady’s okay?”) and unsettling (sleepwalking). Viewers may wonder about his true nature: Is his classmate falsely accusing Ziggy of violence or is he actually a seven-year-old who tries to strangle little girls? While Woodley delivers her painfully heavy-handed lines (“You guys are right... And for some reason that makes me feel wrong.”) rather unimpressively, Ziggy lends substance to his mother’s flatness.

But while the children’s unexpectedly competent performances made the show more watchable, the masterful cinematography merely drew attention to its blandness in all other regards. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, the mind behind critically acclaimed films like “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” fills the backdrop of his characters’ melodrama with vibrant sunsets and ocean views so breathtaking that they almost distract from the actors’ stilted lines and largely uninspired performances—but they also leave the viewer wondering why Vallée couldn’t devote more resources to the script or its execution.

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Though “Big Little Lies” is lacking in substance, it suffers no shortage of style. Still, in the interests of efficiency, it might be more advisable to look to Instagram for pretty beachside views.

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