Two seasons of highly anticipated TV shows wrapped up on the evening of April 2. One, The Walking Dead, has been running for years on AMC and has a global following. The other, Big Little Lies, is a newcomer adapted to television by HBO from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name. Last year, if you had told me the latter would be the better of the two shows, I would have called BS. But having now seen both finales, I can say without question that Big Little Lies was the best seven-ish hours of television that I’ve watched so far in 2017.
Big Little Lies kicks things off with a murder in Monterey, California. We don’t know who was killed, or why. But over the course of seven hour-long episodes, the motives pile up as we’re taken back in time, then advanced slowly to the night of the crime. If it weren’t for the detectives’ interviews with citizens of the town (entertaining at times in their own way during their eight-second contributions to the story), one might forget that the story is creeping towards answering the obvious questions related to the murder.
One might forget the murder not because the story gets convoluted or confusing, but because we become well acquainted with the deeply personal stories of several women. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is a remarried mother of two, projecting confidence and perfection but struggling to find happiness in herself and her relationships. Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a young single mom who’s new to upscale Monterey, and facing all the challenges that a newcomer to a cliquey, affluent town could expect to face. Celeste is a wealthy housewife and mother of twin boys whose struggles are well concealed.
As the episodes tick by, we learn so much about each character. All face demons in their past, and it’s in confronting the terrifying aspects of their realities that these actresses reveal how deeply talented they are. I won’t give anything away, because the journey deeper into the lives and conflicts, internal and external, that these women face is part of what makes this show so engrossing. The show makes viewers confront some pretty incredible circumstances, and I felt at times like I was witnessing deeply real and personal stories play out. One particular scene with a marriage counselor had me completely engrossed, as the therapist quietly danced with the couple around the issues in their marriage. Knowing the truth of their relationship, and seeing how hard they battle to keep it buried, makes for a wondrous yet terrifying performance.
The actresses lend a ton of weight and gravity to their characters’ attempts to face their challenges. Each is brimming with personality and feels so real. Rarely is a show so perfectly cast, and each one knocks it out of the park. Seeing the chemistry between veterans like Kidman and Witherspoon with a newer actress like Woodley is truly impressive. Even the supporting actors and actresses are all in (the kids do an amazing job, too), and it brings Monterey to life. The writing mixes powerful scenes that move with some levity and laughs, resulting in a hell of a ride for the audience.
This is buttressed by one of the best soundtracks to grace a television show in a long time. There are some great new songs I’d never heard, and a number of tasteful covers of classics. From the introductory theme song to the tracks that take us out of each episode and every song in between, they all fit and lend themselves well to the show.
In a time when there are dozens of shows covering zombies, dragons and extraordinary political intrigue, it’s amazing to find a story that’s so gripping while being so believable. The characters in Big Little Lies feel so real. With only seven episodes to build a connection, it’s notable that they endear themselves so strongly. The show respectfully confronts some really heavy things. It gives the audience some space with those big questions, and the scary answers at which we may arrive. Every minute is worth your time, and if you’re going to watch one show this spring, Big Little Lies should be at the top of the list.