The Real Housewives of Monterey

HBO's 'Big Little Lies' centers around a group of mothers in the picturesque community of Monterey, Calif. whose idyllic lives are interrupted by a murder.

click to enlarge L-R: Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman - Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Courtesy of HBO
Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Courtesy of HBO
L-R: Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman
Miniseries du jour Big Little Lies (9 p.m. Sundays, HBO) boasts all the elements Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise would kill for: a star-stacked cast, a collection of conflicting strong female personalities, tumultuous relationships, mom politics, bitchy dialogue dotted with backhanded compliments, sweeping images of swoon-worthy properties and unadulterated drama that climaxes with a mysterious murder.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but you can’t beat a good scripted premium-cable drama, and Big Little Lies had a solid start in Liane Moriarty’s bestselling book by the same name. 

Created and written by David E. Kelley (Ally McBealThe Practice, Amazon’s Goliath) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers ClubWild), Big Little Lies introduces viewers to a group of mothers in the picturesque, affluent community of Monterey, Calif. But their idyllic agendas of coffee dates and yoga classes, stunning beachfront homes and precocious mini-me children give way to twisted home lives and personal struggles.

The “housewives” here are super competitive “having it all” superheroes that look like supermodels, portrayed by A-list actresses Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern. Dads get in on the drama, too, carried by a strong cast of plus-ones including Adam Scott and Alexander Skarsgård.

Big Little Lies certainly draws in an audience with big names and a popular title, but it keeps us hooked with its performances, storytelling, dark humor and mystery.

The series opens at the scene of a swanky school fundraiser. The theme quickly shifts to “murder mystery party” when one attendee winds up dead and the eclectic mix of power moms are at the center. We don’t know whodunit — as an audience, we don’t even know who died. 

Much of the show takes place in the past at the start of a new school year, occasionally cutting to the scene of the impending crime and immediate aftermath, during which detectives interview others in the community. The other parents are all too eager to gossip about the moms, pointing out each woman’s flaws and identifying “red flags” leading up to the crime. Frankly, thus far the show is so packed with compelling drama that it doesn’t need the murder thread to keep drawing us back for more.

Queen bee Madeline is the perfect role for Witherspoon, who personifies the over-involved mom one bad latte away from a total breakdown. She takes newbie Jane (Woodley), a mom that just moved to town, under her wing as yet another project. Jane doesn’t fit the Monterey prototype: She’s single, far younger than the other moms and sleeps on the couch so her son Ziggy can enjoy his own space in their tiny one-bedroom. She claims to have moved to town for the excellent schools, but there’s definitely more to the story. 

When Ziggy is accused of hurting Renata’s (Dern) daughter on his first day of first grade, which he vehemently denies, schoolyard disputes evolve into parent politics. Moms and kids alike are pushed to pick sides.

In this Sunday’s episode, Madeline looks to lure invitees away from Renata’s daughter’s birthday party by organizing a trip to Frozen on Ice. Celeste (Kidman) and Perry (Skarsgård) try couple’s therapy while Jane is forced to discuss her past when Ziggy is assigned a family-tree project.

Picks of the Week:

Victoria (Season Finale, 9 p.m. Sunday, PBS) – On the brink of giving birth, Victoria clashes with Albert and faces threats of assassination as she tries to maintain her independence.

Feud: Bette and Joan (Series Premiere, 10 p.m. Sunday, FX) – Does FX own Ryan Murphy’s soul? The showrunner’s third anthology series for the network explores famous feuds, starting with Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange, the sorely missed mainstay of Murphy’s American Horror Story) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). The Hollywood stars’ epic rivalry on- and off-screen comes to a head on the set of the Oscar-nominated 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bring on the campy fun!


CONTACT JAC KERN: @jackern

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