Big Little Lies review: When life as a pressurised performance blows up

It was tempting to dismiss this show as something befitting the playground. (Or, at least, I did.) But it repaid closer attention as it grew darker and more compassionate

When the truth, the whole truth, and many other things ancillary to the truth are finally told in Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic, Monday, 9pm), it hardly seems accidental that its characters have been wearing disguises: dressed up like a brace of Audrey Hepburns and a pack of Elvis Presleys, playing at grown-ups.

First disturbing a dreamy sea-green fantasy of the California coast with a murder investigation, then doubling back to a kindergarten bullying incident that became a proxy war for wound-up parents, HBO’s drama never dropped the sly role-reversal of its premise. Here, kids would behave with preternatural maturity, voicing reason and exasperation, while adults built infantile grievances and jealousies into a towering pyre. What started as a mordant joke, though, darkened into something more troubling: that children learn their behaviour from woeful example.

When the parents arrive to the school’s dress-up night for the series finale, either in Holly Golightly’s pearls or the King’s Hawaiian lei (childish fantasies of adulthood each), they barely seem able to pull off such roles. The essence of a happy marriage, Adam Scott’s sullen spouse Ed previously decided, was “the ability to pretend”. But David E Kelley’s drama, based on the book by Liane Moriarty, is concerned, more compassionately, with far more damaging self-delusions.

Take Jane, alternately nervy and steely in Shailene Woodley’s absorbing performance. She can say of her rapist: “I still hope that whoever he is, he’s a nice guy.” This is a willed deception for the sake of the child she conceived, Ziggy – she also entertains ideas of violent revenge. The couples therapist who intervenes to shake Nicole Kidman’s trapped Celeste out of her own desperate rationalising – that her abusive relationship with Alexander Skarsgard’s Perry is either a kind of sexual game, or an inescapable cycle, deftly concealed – could be speaking about any of the characters when she sees “profound self-awareness under the hard shell of denial”. Characters here are at their most compelling when they were at their most contradictory, believably aware of damaging patterns and tragically unable to break them.


Monitored by a chorus of neighbourhood snoops, who interject and misconstrue via police interview, these women see life as kind of pressurised performance, which makes Reese Witherspoon’s high-strung drama mom a strangely sympathetic focus. (That her energies are invested in bringing Avenue Q, a puppet show for grown-ups, to town is also telling.) Laura Dern’s corporate CEO Renata is hardly less susceptible to the politics of display, though, as concerned as anyone else about maintaining an appearance worthy of all these immaculate kitchens and walk-in wardrobes.

In the show's earlier episodes, it was was tempting to dismiss their squabbles and the show as something befitting the playground. (Or, at least, I did.) But it repays closer attention. Director Jean-Marc Vallée works in careful details, bringing the ominous crash of waves into otherwise familiar domestic scenes, while affluent delusions are steadily eroded with arch gestures (a teenage girl auctioning her virginity online for Amnesty International), freighted private glances and sometimes forcible intervention.

That, ultimately, the source of separate traumas should be the same person may be a contrivance too far. Otherwise, the breakthroughs of the drama are more discreet and even instructive: a careful and growing exhortation to speak, admit, and communicate directly, to put away childish things. “Trust me,” glowers one neighbour, “these women are vicious.” But trust ultimately slays more beasts. Slumping away from countless testimonies, one frustrated detective finally commands: “Turn it off. I’m so sick of these f**king lies.” As the clamour grows for a second series, though, that seems like a minority view.