Big Little Lies is based in the tranquil seaside town of Monterey, California, where nothing is quite as it seems. Doting moms, successful husbands, adorable children, beautiful homes: What lies will be told to keep their perfect worlds from unraveling? Told through the eyes of three mothers – Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) – Big Little Lies paints a picture of a town fueled by rumors and divided into the haves and have-nots, exposing the conflicts, secrets and betrayals that compromise relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and neighbors.
I have to be honest with you, I wasn't particularly excited about the prospects of reviewing Big Little Lies - not because I hadn't heard good things about this seven-episode HBO series, but because two of the lead actresses (both Oscar winners) – Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon – aren't among my favorites. I've always found both of them to be a little "showy" in their performances and have never understood why they get all the adoration. Until now. Both Kidman and Witherspoon are fantastic here, and the rest of the cast is equally impressive in a soap-opera-y storyline (think a premium cable version of Desperate Housewives with just enough edge to it to keep a cynical critic like me interested up until the very end).
The series – written by TV guru David E. Kelley (based on the novel by Liane Moriarty) and directed entirely by Dallas Buyers Club's Jean-Marc Vallée – is set in the beautiful surroundings of Monterey, California, which, of course, is the perfect juxtaposition to some of the dark secrets being hidden by the main characters of this story.
Witherspoon stars as Madeline Mackenzie, a remarried mother of two daughters, whose current husband, Ed (Adam Scott), worries that she is still hung up on her ex, the now also-remarried Nathan (James Tupper). While Madeline isn't exactly a "diva" when it comes to the town and its activities, she's certainly quite active in its goings-on – lobbying for a local production of the musical "Avenue Q" while being opposed by another local mother, Renata Klein (Laura Dern).
Renata's opposition to Madeline is a little more complicated than just a general dislike the two women have for each other. A newly single mother in town, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), has her son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage) get accused of choking Renata's daughter on the first day of school. Ziggy denies it, and when Madeline sticks up for the town's newest residents, Renata resents it. Jane arrives in town with issues of her own, as her son is the result of a one-night-stand where she was raped – and her obsession with finding out who did it (as well as her paranoia about him showing up again in her life) is one of the driving forces of this character.
However, by far the most interesting (and hence, darkest) couple in town are Celeste and Perry Wright (played by Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård, respectively). The seemingly happy parents of a pair of boy twins (who also attend school with the other kids) have a complex relationship with one another. Perry is an abusive husband whose arguments with Celeste are almost immediately followed by a physical altercation, including rough sex. Even though Perry feels remorseful afterward, the pattern continues over and over again – and to make things even more complicated, Celeste seems to get off on it much of the time. The two actors are fantastic here in what are easily this series' most difficult performances to pull off – particularly Skarsgård, who has to come off as both despicable yet somewhat sympathetic at the same time (both actors have earned much-deserved Emmy nods for their roles here).
What I haven't mentioned yet is the "hook" this series has that makes it so watchable. The opening scenes let viewers know that a murder has taken place – and the primary stories are told in flashback, with witnesses to the evening of the murder (which takes place at a school event) commenting during police interviews about the various main characters and their relationships to one another. What makes the set-up here so fun is that not only do the viewers not know who the victim is – but we don't know who the killer is, either. I'm sure this has been done before in a movie or series, but it makes watching Big Little Lies a whole lot of fun, as one is constantly trying to guess who is going to die and who is going to do it.
If there's one fault of the series – and it's a minor one – it's that, at least from my viewpoint, it telegraphs the finale a little too much beforehand. Not only was this critic able to figure out pretty easily who the murder victim was a couple episodes in – but I also pegged the identities of other characters who committed various crimes.
Still, there's no denying that this is engaging, well-acted television that is worth checking out. I had the advantage of watching this series without knowledge of the novel's storyline – and that's a good way to go in if you've never read the book as, apparently, none of the outcomes have been changed from page to screen. The fact that the creators also kept this limited to seven episodes (10 or 12 would have really stretched things, I think) is also effective, as things keep moving along at a brisk pace. This is top-notch stuff from HBO, and worthy of the accolades it has been getting.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Big Little Lies arrives on home video with the three 50GB Blu-rays housed inside a standard Elite keepcase, with a plastic hub holding the first two discs of the set. An pair of inserts are included: one containing the code for both an UltraViolet and iTunes digital copy of the season, and one advertising the novel upon which this series is based. The keepcase slides inside a cardboard slipcover with artwork that matches that of the keepcase slick. There are no front-loaded trailers on any of the three Blu-rays, whose main menu is a still shot of the three main female characters running on the beach together, with menu selections vertically down the left side of the screen.
The Blu-rays in this release are region-free.
Each episode of Big Little Lies was shot digitally on Arri Alexa cameras and is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This is a solid, if not quite spectacular, transfer and about on par with other television series that I've seen shot on Arri equipment.
The presentation seems to mostly make use of the natural lighting of the California coastline, which leads to some impressive shots when the series is filming outdoors, but less-than-impressive ones when things move inside. Many of the evening and dimly lit scenes have a hint of noise to them, and while black levels are good, they're not exactly the "inky deep" kind that one would hope for. Some scenes seemed to have been tinted in post-production for effect, so there are some here that have that bluish tinge to them that seems so popular in theatrical films these days.
Details overall are pretty good, especially in outdoor and well-lit sequences. Fleshtones are consistent for the most part, but facial features aren't always well-defined – which is perhaps intentional to make the leads in this series look as glamourous as possible.
The featured audio for each episode is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Considering this isn't the kind of series with a lot of aural activity (huge chunks are just people sitting around talking to one another), I was impressed with the overall dynamics of these episode tracks.
While I wouldn't go as far to call the audio fully immersive, the tracks do have some fun with the surrounds, not only enhancing the musical score and using them for ambient noises, but occasionally using a rear speaker for dialogue from someone coming into the scene from across the room. The audio here may not show off the full range of your home theater, but it's pretty good for a series of this type and free from any problems or dropouts.
In addition to the 5.1 lossless track, both a French 5.1 DTS Digital Surround track and a Spanish (Latin) 2.0 DTS Digital Surround track are an option for each episode. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish (Latin), Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Inside the Episode (HD 1:20) – With the exception of Episode 2 of the season, each episode comes with a short "Inside the Episode" clip in which the cast and crew talk about that particular show. Since the first two episodes are the only ones on the first Blu-ray, viewers only get one of these brief featurettes here.
Inside the Episodes (HD 3:00) – Brief featurettes covering Episode 3 (0:59), Episode 4 (1:16), and Episode 5 (0:45).
Inside the Episodes (HD 2:03) – A final set of short featurettes covering Episode 6 (0:58) and Episode 7 (1:05).
About Big Little Lies (HD 7:23) – This is a slightly more extended (albeit also pretty short) featurette about the series, featuring comments from members of the cast and crew.
Big Little Lies is one of those television mysteries with a great hook: Not only does the audience not know who the killer is, but we have no idea who the victim is either. This makes every scene fun to view and even gives the series a "rewatchability" factor, as one can go back and view certain scenes in a different light. The cast here is top-notch, as is the direction and writing. Even with a rather minimal selection when it comes to bonus features, this release is still Highly Recommended.