“Big Little Lies” follows the constant bickering of a group of overwhelmingly rich, overwhelmingly white people.
Eventually the bickering results in a death, but by the time this HBO limited series gets around to revealing the victim — the identity and details get teased out each episode — many viewers are likely to be exhausted by the soapy, talky nature of the script, as well as the general boorishness of the characters.
Written by David E. Kelley and based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the story follows four mothers in tony Monterey, California, whose children go to first grade together. There are fabulously wealthy friends Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman); Madeline’s a famous meddler, while Celeste is something of an ice queen. On the first day of school Madeline is befriended by Jane (Shailene Woodley), a young single mom new to the area.
And at the end of that school day, Jane’s son is accused of bullying the daughter of Renata (Laura Dern), a corporate warrior. This sets up ongoing tensions between Renata and the other three women.
“Big Little Lies” is essentially a trouble-in-paradise story. All the women except Jane live in big, beachside, million-dollar houses, each has an attractive husband and all their children have healthy California glows. But, of course, each marriage and family has its own set of tensions and cracks, from physical abuse to delusions of persecution and assorted resentments.
Understand, there is a lot of talent here. Along with the formidable female leads — and Dern is about as formidable as it gets — Adam Scott shines as Madeline’s patient but simmering husband; Zoe Kravitz flits in and out as the new-age bride of Madeline’s ex; Alexander Skarsgard vacillates as Celeste’s troubled husband; the list goes on.
But just because it’s well-acted doesn’t mean “Big Little Lies” is worth enduring. Holding the apparently cataclysmic ending out on a stick is something of a cheap trick and the constant chorus of school officials and fellow parents testifying to how catty everybody is comes on too heavy.
We get it, these are awful people. So why should we want to spend time with them?
Tom long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Big Little Lies’
9 p.m. Sunday