Big Little Lies review: Daily character assassinations in the valley of the iPhones

This show wants to be God of Carnage but ends up as Desperate Housewives. And when a character tucks a revolver under her pillow, you can say goodnight to dramatic subtlety

It is the first day of school, and, with bittersweet predictability, tribes at a Californian primary school begin to form almost immediately. There is the popular set, dominated by an outgoing queen bee. There are the needy over-achievers getting everybody’s backs up. There are disruptive tearaways, whose rage bubbles up from concealed wells. A fresh arrival to this social order could fall in with any one of these groups, waiting for the selection that will determine their future. And, of course, these people have also brought their children.

Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic, Monday, 9pm), the new show from Ally McBeal and Boston Legal creator David E Kelley, begins by outlining a murder scene: a school's evening function is bathed purple with mingling police lights and snatches of dialogue reach us as though we were watching in shock. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the programme is preoccupied with hues, depicting beachfront properties, ocean sprays and languid sunsets as though through tastefully faded Instagram filters. But it revels in a more discreet kind of violence: the enmity and character assassinations conducted daily among competitive and affluent parents in this, the valley of the twitching iPhones.

HBO’s latest drama attracted advance attention for its cast list: Shailene Woodley, as guarded single mother Jane Chapman, is understandably intimidated to discover that her new Monterey neighbourhood is home to Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, as though it’s a holiday retreat for film stars. But Kelley’s show, an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, dwells on the chatter of nonfamous nobodies, interspersing the action with a chorus of other parents, glimpsed in retrospective police interviews, who leak out gossipy yet omniscient exposition: “It’s possible, had she not fallen over, that nobody would have gotten killed.”

Otherwise they gravitate to the same kind of bitchy joke: of Witherspoon's glamorous, under-occupied mom, Madeline Martha Mackenzie (we should call her "Mmm"), a catty observer says, "She wanted to be Betty Grable – ended up Betty Crocker." In a later episode we are told, "Scratch the surface of any Jimmy Stewart – Charlie Manson." Big Little Lies, centred on a moment of aggression between kids that precipitates agression between parents, wants to be Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage – ends up Desperate Housewives. (Meoww.)

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To this end it is annoyingly coy about the murder itself (we still don’t know who the victim is), but we’re given every access to competitive status – to cars, cavernous kitchens, apartment-sized walk-in wardrobes and a beachfront veranda where Laura Dern’s unliked bully seems to own the most expensive sunsets.

Violence simmers beneath this fetching aesthetic, nowhere more than in Kidman’s apparently lusty marriage to Alexander Skarsgård, where eroticism and aggression have become troublingly entwined. But the moment one furtive character tucks a revolver under her pillow is the moment you can give up on further hopes of dramatic subtlety.

Likewise, the children are mainly fantasy creations, given a preternatural sense of social awareness in a role reversal typical of the show. It’s Jane’s six-year-old, Ziggy, who first suggests they stop to give an injured Madeline some help, while Mmm’s own child Chloe (who is “always networking” sighs her mother) speaks mainly with precocious exasperation: “I’m on your side, woman.” Given how infantile these parents seems to be, this may be one of the lies in the title. Who here is big, and who is little, is not as easy to tell.