“I believe women are chemically incapable of forgiveness,” notes one of the interviewees in the police precinct after a murder at an elementary school fundraiser. It is a murder we’re taunted with from the outset of Big Little Lies, an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling book of the same name. It isn’t your average whodunit, of course, as there is far more subterfuge and sophistication to any murder involving rich people in Monterey.
The only “working class” character in the puzzle is new-in-town Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), who encounters one of Monterey’s heavy-hitters in the gossip mill (whether spreading or being the source of it), Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon). It’s as both mothers are driving their respective kids to school, Ziggy (Iain Armitage) and Chloe (Darby Camp), that Jane gets out of her car to help Madeline walk to her car after she cramps up a muscle in the wake of yelling at her oldest teenage daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton), for riding in the car with a friend who texts while driving.
From this moment forward, Jane and Madeline are bonded to one another–whether Jane wants it or not. For that’s just the sort of person Madeline is, and with her intensity comes a loyalty that can’t be broken. Her best friend, Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), has also found this to be true, their rapport being immediately evident to Jane as she arrives at Otter Bay Elementary School for the kids’ first day of first grade. Celeste’s twins, Max (Nicholas Crovetti) and Josh (Cameron Crovetti), appear, like everything else in her life, to be the perfect extension of the carefully manufactured existence she’s built with her banker husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).
But, as with most things in the upper echelons of Monterey, not all is as it seems beneath the surface. In point of fact, Madeline seems to live in the least feigned way between the three of them, putting her opinions and emotions out in the open at all hours of the day–especially when it comes to Abigail’s increasing closeness with ex-husband Nathan’s (James Tupper) new–younger–wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). Though Madeline is happily married to her own second spouse, Ed (Adam Scott), she can’t help but feel slighted and vexed by the way Nathan seems to be so much more attentive and obsequious to Bonnie, compounded by Abigail’s own affinity with this hippy-dippy yoga instructor.
Though Madeline could attempt to take the high road by not constantly trying to compete with Bonnie, it is as she says to Jane at their favorite coffee shop, “No, I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.” And it is this insistence that forms the core of the show, adapted with such beauty and attention to detail by David E. Kelley (a long way from Ally McBeal) and Jean-Marc Vallée (who, like the rest of the main cast, comes from a cinematic background, and also worked with Witherspoon previously while directing Wild). There is no “forgiveness,” there is only allegiances and sticking with the ones who have shown their reliability and devotion from the start. Though, in Ed’s case, being doting only seems to backfire and make him slightly more repugnant to Madeline, clearly enamored of Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), the director of the production of Avenue Q she’s rallying to keep from being shut down by Renata Klein (Laura Dern), a powerful Monterey mother who has it in for Jane and Ziggy after her daughter, Amabella (Ivy George), accuses Ziggy of bullying her on the first day of school.
As emotions intensify leading up to the school’s Trivia Night, featuring an Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn theme that every parent brings his or her A-game for, the truth behind each woman’s “big little lie” begins to unravel with the speed of Monterey’s crashing waves. In terms of intrigue, dramaticness and more than a hint of a macabre sense of humor, it is very much like Pretty Little Liars for adults (and not just because the word “lie” is in the mix). As such, there’s no doubt that the saga will continue even in spite of it being almost impossible to wrangle three celebrities of this caliber for a consistent shooting schedule and the finale being able to serve as a standalone cap on the story.