David E. Kelley's adaptation of Liane Moriarty's bestselling novel, Big Little Lies, offers a deceptively rich portrayal of a group of characters it's historically been simpler to satirize. The seven-part HBO miniseries about a group of rich women who live in ritzy Monterey and aggressively parent their first-graders sparkles with tempting targets who are easy to hate: Reese Witherspoon plays Madeline, an intense and exhausting woman whose willingness to turn every incident into a showdown underscores the void at the center of her life. (Picture a grown-up Tracy Flick.) Her archenemy Renata (Laura Dern), an executive who serves on various boards, is overprotective and correspondingly guilt-ridden. Then there's Madeline's best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who gave up the law to be a beautiful languid stay-at-home mom more suited to the Lifetime channel than HBO. Rounding out the group is Jane (Shailene Woodley), the only working-class mom in the bunch. She's new in town, single, and struggling.
Instead of sorting those well-worn tropes into the available vicious parodies, the miniseries satirizes us, the viewers, for our impulse to believe those canned narratives. It's a winking bit of genre mischief that pervades the series. Take the frame: The show orients itself around a murder on a trivia night. That's clear from the start. But instead of presenting the victim, the show introduces the hurricane of rumor such a crime might unleash — and keeps the victim's identity secret for six of its seven episodes. In lieu of the murder, then, we're regaled with the unpleasant background testimony the fellow parents tell the cops. "Add alcohol to the mix and the fact that women don't let things go," one tsks. "It all goes back to the incident on orientation day," says another. "It's possible that, had she not fallen, nobody would have gotten killed," says a third.
Every one of these barbed accounts of the main players is wrong. These are poisonous little scripts, and in the eagerness with which the community offers them to Merrin Dungey (who plays the weary Detective Quinlan and conveys — without saying a word — how awful she finds people in general, and these in particular), they echo a central incident in the series concerning one of the children. Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed all seven episodes, makes a point of visually juxtaposing their Greek chorus of gossipy speculation about the murder with scenes that reveal those accounts to be not just flawed but dull compared to the real story. "None of us really sees things as they are, we see things as we are," Zoë Kravitz's character Bonnie says. That's a theme of sorts: For all that we like to think of "Real Housewives" as cynically manipulative status-mongers, their motives here tend to be not purer, perhaps, but simpler and sadder.
So Big Little Lies expands in a kind of double helix of satire and sincerity. Yes, the women sometimes weaponize their children's problems. It's true that schoolyard narratives acquire outsize importance. (A child's birthday party becomes a second Iliad, to hear the gossipy neighbors tell it.) But the miniseries weaves those petty details into a broader narrative where people aren't reducible to vengeful cogs in the status machine. The children have secret dynamics of their own. So do the fathers. So do the marriages. The show's humor is at interesting odds with the murder that frames it; nothing works in quite the way you expect.
The result is terrific. This is obviously a gifted cast, and a few are playing against type. Adam Scott and Woodley both play characters less attractive than they really are. But it works: Kidman, Witherspoon, and Woodley jangle into an oddly believable trio, and Laura Dern's fabulous and fluid angularity anchors a character who needs it. Her Renata becomes not just sympathetic — sympathetic is dull — but psychologically credible. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won't say much about Alexander Skarsgård and Kidman except to note that they aren't playing against type, and that the show is rightly obsessed with how hot and weird they both are.
Ultimately, though, it's the structure of Big Little Lies that makes it work. The show's clever use of flashbacks and flashforwards is eerie. But if it sometimes ratchets up the suspense in scenes that should be trivial (someone goes jogging, a kid loses the first-grade class' stuffed animal), it also undercuts those effects by insisting absolutely on the humor of the mundane: Witherspoon yells at a crossing-guard. A dad burps. That tension between the Lynchian bizarre and total normalcy is partly the point. Life is confusing, and sometimes — if you're rich in Monterey — it's easier to supply an explanation than to look for one. As one parent says of Witherspoon's character: "Things never blow over once Madeline gets involved. They blow up." And, for a little longer than we'd care to think about it, we believe her.