They’re mostly rich. They’re mostly white. They day drink, go to yoga and eye each other suspiciously each morning at school drop-off.
And, maybe, they kill people.
They’re the women at the center of “Big Little Lies,” an engrossing but glib murder mystery-cum-social satire set among the moneyed mommies of Monterey, Calif., debuting Sunday on HBO. In the grand tradition of “Divorce” and “The Affair,” this seven-part miniseries is the latest premium-cable tale of middle-aged Caucasians having torrid sex, not always with their spouses, in multimillion-dollar waterfront homes.
And it comes with all the prestige TV trappings. Written by human Emmy magnet David E. Kelley, whose many credits include “Ally McBeal” and the more recent “Goliath,” the series is adapted from a bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee of “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club” fame. Its cast includes not only two lead actress Oscar-winners, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, but one of Hollywood’s most in-demand younger stars, Shailene Woodley.
In short, “Big Little Lies” is as glossy and superficially well-packaged as the very community it aims to skewer but ultimately guilty of the same corrosive emptiness. Though highly bingeable and at times bitingly funny, the series is also patently ridiculous and riddled with pernicious stereotypes of henpecked husbands and scheming mean-girl mothers who use their children as pawns.
Fitting comfortably in a growing subgenre of bloody domestic thrillers like “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train,” “Big Little Lies” is about murder as much as marriage. The “mystery” it explores isn’t just whodunit, but who is happy, who is not and what happiness even means in a decades-long union. The various bourgeois couples it depicts are each different on the surface but alike in the shared contrast between the public facade and the private reality.
The engine driving all the drama is Madeline McKenzie (Witherspoon), a mostly stay-at-home mother of two aptly described as “an itty bitty ball of rage.” Always immaculately turned out with her buttery blond hair and flowered dresses, she also has a flair for inventive use of the F-word. She works part time at a community theater and is married to Ed (Adam Scott), who works from their palatial, oceanfront home at a stand-up desk doing something vaguely internet-related. (Extravagant wealth is a given in this world, but details are scant.)
Though Ed is cute, bearded and supportive, Madeline still hasn’t moved on from her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), who is now married to a gorgeous, much younger yoga instructor (Zoe Kravitz). And she constantly compares herself unfavorably with best friend Celeste Wright (Kidman), a fragile beauty trapped in a Seemingly Perfect Marriage to a handsome banker who, it turns out, is an abusive creep (Alexander Skarsgard).
En route to dropping off her daughter at first-grade orientation, Madeline befriends Jane Chapman (Woodley), a young, working-class single mother. Newly arrived in town, she has a mysterious past and a sweet 6-year-old, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), who is accused of trying to choke a classmate who happens to be the daughter of Renata Klein (Laura Dern), a high-powered tech executive and Madeline’s arch-nemesis.
Motivated by altruism as well as a compulsive need to meddle, Madeline rallies around Jane and against Renata. Their rivalry culminates in a fatal confrontation at a school fundraiser teased in the opening minutes of the first episode. The specter of this crime, the details of which are kept a mystery for some time, provides a rather irresistible hook for viewers who otherwise might be turned off by characters who are frequently this monstrous.
Miserable marriages are a staple on TV these days, and weariness can set in while watching yet another privileged couple seethe through therapy sessions. “Big Little Lies” will almost certainly be accused of indulging “white people problems” and uses half-hearted satire to try to neutralize such critiques, but they still apply.
There’s a fierce showdown over a trip to Disney on Ice that recalls the scathing humor of Alexander Payne, but these moments seem at odds with the intense melodrama of other subplots, including Celeste’s tediously tempestuous marriage and Jane’s traumatic backstory. The line between the intentionally ridiculous and the accidentally ridiculous is dangerously blurry.
Also problematic is a device interweaving commentary from various peripheral characters, seemingly as if being questioned by police. Their ongoing testimony is supposed to be a reminder of the sniping gossip that pollutes this small community. But their observations are facile and contrived, playing like heavy-handed interjections from the screenwriter.
“Jane just didn’t fit here, kind of like a dirty old Prius parked outside of Barney’s,” says one character.
It’s enough to make anyone a little homicidal.
“Big Little Lies” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO. Rated TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)