With Stranger Things, it was by the end of the first episode. With The OA, it took longer. With Apple Tree Yard, I gave up and watched some paint dry instead. But Big Little Lies? It got me hooked within the first five minutes. More than the opening credits featuring the dimly lit features of mega-actors Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley, it was the dialogue that really drew me in, laden with promise that this was to be a more honest-than-usual depiction of family life.
“The thing about fundraisers? Everybody wants to prove who's the richest,” says one dad.
“They're vicious,” adds a mum.
“Add alcohol into the mix and the fact that women don't let things go… they're the Olympic athletes of grudges,” says another dad.
“It's sexist how the women always get blamed,” says another mum.
You will either relate to this dialogue, or you won’t. But even if you’ve never felt the not-in-the-parenting-manual weirdness of sitting at a school auction, with men making improbably large bids for a helicopter ride, while the poorer parents sit wondering whether they can make the rent, there is still much to recommend Big Little Lies, HBO’s new eight-part drama directed by David E Kelley, co-produced by Reese Witherspoon and based on Liane Moriarty’s bestseller of the same name. Sure, it isn’t perfect. Sometimes, it can be a little cheesy. And if you’re of the firm conviction that rich people have no problems and should just quit moaning, then it probably isn’t for you. But if you’ve ever experienced domestic violence, bullying, infidelity, fraught relations with your partner’s new partner, your child being wrongly accused, working-parent guilt or the exhaustion of being a single mum, then Big Little Lies might just be your favourite new binge-watch. Oh, and its kitchen-porn game is strong.
Set in affluent Monterey, California, all the houses look like something out of The World Of Interiors, and their owners are equally chic. Lest any viewer doesn’t quite grasp their own good fortune at being blessed with the munificence of watching Nicole Kidman on t’telly instead of on t’silver screen, her character, former-corporate-lawyer-turned-SAHM Celeste, is referred to as “beautiful” twice within the first 15 minutes of episode one. But everyone is beautiful, even the characters who are supposed to be plain. Yes, it’s one of *those* shows. Alexander Skarsgard – most famous in the UK for having dated Alexa Chung – is perfectly cast as Celeste’s alpha husband, Perry. It becomes immediately apparent that they are one of the few couples in Monterey who still actually have sex. And who can blame them? As one of the dads remarks: “Perry and Celeste? Honestly? I’d sleep with either.”
More compelling than its murder plot is how Big Little Lies explores the disconnect between real and perceived, and the heavy burden of carrying around the discrepancy between the two
It’s not giving away any spoilers to say that someone gets murdered – this is revealed in the very first scene – but the victim and the perpetrator are kept from us, leaving us to guess their identities as the characters’ various stories unfold. But never mind the whodunnit – what really separates Big Little Lies from all the other TV shows aimed wantonly at my demographic is the prism through which it views domestic violence, an issue that is treated in a more honest and unsettling way than anything else I’ve seen on TV. But I can’t say any more about that without giving away the plot, so let’s move on swiftly to another theme: our obsession with other people’s perfect lives.
Parents or not, we’ve all been there. Social media has only made it worse. There’s something cathartic about watching TV characters ploughing their own envious furrows, carrying the crushing weight of their own disappointments as they gaze out wishfully at the unsullied blue horizon of their friends’ and neighbours’ lives. “You're exactly right and for some reason that makes me feel wrong,” says Jane (played beautifully by Shailene Woodley), voicing how most of us have felt when confronted with someone we perceive as possessing all the things we lack. It might be a camel-coloured roll neck. It might be a perfect marriage. But scratch the surface and both are rarely what they seem.
Why do women do this? Why do we think everyone else is having better sex, going to better parties, enjoying better friendships and living a better life? It’s so fucked-up. Middle-age is supposed to be a time of self-acceptance and of making peace. “I’m still here,” you say. “That is enough.” Only you don’t, and it isn’t. You still have your nose pressed up against the glass, like a child in a sweetshop, only instead of bonbons you’re lusting after Loaf sofas, Gucci handbags and your neighbour’s car. Or their flexible working hours, their tech-whizz husband, their well-behaved kids or whatever else you imagine signifies a perfect life.
Nobody’s life is perfect – duh – but in imagining they are, the temptation exists to make your own seem perfect, too. More compelling than its murder plot is how Big Little Lies explores the disconnect between real and perceived, and the heavy burden of carrying around the discrepancy between the two. It’s an entreaty to talk about it, whatever it is, even if it means shattering the illusion. Maybe it will encourage some women to do that. Or maybe they’ll just sit lusting after Zoë Kravitz’s yoga bod. Both are OK.
Big Little Lies starts on March 13 on Sky Atlantic.