HBO's Big Little Lies has all the trappings of a prestige melodrama: a tangled web of gossipy characters, explicit sex scenes and a slowly unfurling murder mystery.
Better yet, it has an all-star cast, full of Academy Award winners and nominees and actors who make everyone's best-of lists.
Big Little Lies excels with its gaudy casting and juicy beach read drama but falls short with its constant pursuit of gravitas where it should keep things light.
The seven-episode limited series is based on the bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty. The mystery involving four petty mothers is lifted almost directly from Moriarty's pages. One of the few differences is the locale — Australia swapped for sunny Monterey, Calif.
It follows alpha moms Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) and single mom Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) as they navigate the first day of first grade for their tots.
Madeline is the blond, beautiful supermom whose helicopter parenting comes from a place of genuine concern rather than a need for perfect children. She and husband Ed (Adam Scott) see their youngest, Chloe, start first grade with a knack for networking and an excellent taste in music.
Celeste is the icy, modelesque mom to twin boys who gave up her law career to be a full-time mother and wife to controlling husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard).
And Jane is the young newcomer who struggles to acclimate herself and son Ziggy to the elementary school politics in an affluent town. It's clear she is trying to suppress her demons, though they slowly come out after Madeline takes Jane under her wing. The three become fast friends.
The story revolves around a scandalous murder, but like True Detective's stellar first season, it's more about suburban politics and power plays in this mostly white, Silicon Valley-style seaside town.
In a bold move, Big Little Lies doesn't reveal the victim or killer, choosing instead to showcase the slow breakdowns of each character until his or her flaws are the only things you see. If HBO keeps following the novel, you'll be very surprised at the identity of both the victim and perpetrator.
Fittingly, director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild) brings a washed-out, clinical vibe to the series. The picturesque landscapes and sultry music put a sort of Instagram filter onto the lives of these seemingly perfect women.
The people of Monterey spend their lives behind glass walls, figuratively and literally. The opening sequence and scenes show them comfortably behind the wheels of plush SUVs while they watch their children absentmindedly stare at phone screens from the rearview mirror. For the characters and the viewers, everything seems to be viewed through a hazy filter or rose-tinted glasses.
But their perfect lives are all perfect lies.
Luckily, we soapy melodrama fiends get to watch every character's facade shatter into a million big little shameful flaws. It's a guilty pleasure watch at its best.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.