When I was 15 years old, my parents sent me on a teen tour of Colorado and California. There, in the company of other hormonal and petulant adolescents, I explored a bevy of picturesque sights that included Colorado’s Pikes Peak, celebrity skiing retreat Aspen and CA’s wondrous Sequoia National Park. Yet the two most memorable stops by far in terms of sheer pristine beauty were Carmel, where Hollywood icon/Republican jackass Clint Eastwood once ruled as mayor, and Monterey, best known for being the venue of a 1967 music festival that introduced the iconic likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin. To this day in midlife, after visiting some of the world’s most beautiful cities and beaches, those few days in Carmel and Monterey remain indelibly etched in my memory.
It was this lingering image seared in my head of Monterey’s breathtaking vistas that lured me to watch the new HBO limited series Big Little Lies, which takes place in the aforementioned paradise. Taking the slot of the unexpectedly delightful The Young Pope, the show, like its predecessor, also has a solid pedigree of talents in front of and behind the camera. Based on the popular 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty, the TV adaptation stars two highly acclaimed Oscar-winning actresses, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, with a script by Emmy-winner David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, L.A. Law), and a gifted director, Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Wild). So far, only three episodes have unspooled on the cable subscription channel, with four more to go. Two questions cross my brain: Can we get The Young Pope back? Or how much longer do I have to wait for Game of Thrones to return? (Scuttlebutt has it at July.)
A misfire and waste of talent
I know many critics have compared Big Little Lies to the erstwhile ABC hit Desperate Housewives, and I understand the analogy. Like that now-defunct network show, Big Little Lies is basically a soap opera revolving around rich, catty housewives; except in this instance the setting is a gorgeous coastal CA town that captivated me in my youth and not a suburban cul-de-sac. As a longtime fan of this genre, I have no issue with the narrative structure of serial comedy/drama. I enjoy it and am not a snob that thinks that if it doesn’t originate on PBS or is not a documentary on some esoteric subject, then it’s not worth my attention. But Big Little Lies tests my patience. Not only does the show lack the wry, arch tone of Desperate Housewives, but also the taut plot and pacing.
To avoid giving away any spoilers, I’ll recap the basic premise: The show begins with a murder mystery. A police investigation has just commenced. We don’t know who was killed; however, it’s obvious from the rapid-fire editing that intercuts the present with flashbacks, as well as the gossipy comments uttered by a rotating gallery of witnesses — all citizens of Monterey — that a main character has been slain. From then on, we’re introduced to the principal characters, and that’s when things get dicey.
As the town’s pert busybody/agitated dynamo Madeline, Witherspoon plays a role she can do in a coma. Oh yes, we do see Madeline engaging in an ongoing war of words with Renata Klein (a manic Laura Dern), a soulless finance executive stereotype/tiger momma, but it doesn’t work. Dern, who ironically played Witherspoon’s ill-fated mother in the excellent film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, is miscast here. Plus, the writing for Renata is so over the top, that it seems to clash with the realistic tone adopted by Witherspoon, Kidman and the others in the cast.
Then there’s Kidman’s role. She plays Celeste, a former lawyer who has traded in her briefs to be the picture-perfect human blow-up doll to the picture-perfect husband/jet-setting businessman/controlling jerk par excellence Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard). Celeste is hiding a dark secret. Underneath the glossy veneer, she’s an abused wife, with the violence often serving as foreplay to rough sex. Celeste seems to have accepted the situation as twisted, toxic passion in a Fifty Shades of Grey kind of way. I can only hope Perry is the character who gets offed.
Incongruously, the show’s plot-driven format, a soap opera trope, is one of its biggest pitfalls. For instance, it makes no sense to me, other than it fits the pre-determined arc, why the vivacious Madeline would immediately befriend the morose, sad-sack single mother Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) after the latter arrives in Monterey, with creepy kid in tow. Why? Is she enamored with Jane’s inability to flex a facial muscle besides depressed frowning? And, for some inexplicable, unfathomable reason, Madeline and Celeste are besties, which also makes no sense given they have no chemistry as friends and zero commonality other than they live in the same town. It also doesn’t help that Kidman tackles her role with the energy of someone overdosing on Lithium. (I guess she would have to behave like that given her marriage).
Right now, the only sympathetic character is Madeline’s second husband Ed (Adam Scott), a genuinely nice, stable guy who seems to get short shrift from his wife because he’s not as dashing as her smarmy first husband Nathan (James Tupper), who also lives in Monterey and has remarried the much younger, fetching Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). Madeline grouses so much about her ex and his sexy young wife that it makes Ed (and Celeste) feel that she still pines for Nathan while settling for Ed. Sigh. (Give me Ed any day over Nathan).
Witherspoon and Kidman are two of my favorite film actresses, so I was especially eager to see them both making their TV series debuts. God knows their body of work and laurels indicate both have the chops to take on great roles missing for women over 35 in cinema. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Big Little Lies is that vehicle that will stretch their talents or propel them into the pantheon of TV immortality.
Because I have committed myself to watch the show to the bitter end, I can only hope it improves markedly. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m dumping this for FX’s Feud, Ryan Murphy’s new anthology TV series whose debut season focuses on the rivalry between legendary divas Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) during the production of the 1962 horror classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The first episode alone, so wonderfully entertaining and bitchy, has me hooked. If you must see Big Little Lies, use it as a travelogue for Monterey.