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Big Little Lies MVPs: Episode 1 "Somebody's Dead"

by Nathaniel R

She's delicious!

Why yes she is, Alexander, she is. So's the show.

Sometimes, on particularly dark-mood days, as your editor sits in the Film Experience HQ, a lonely room high atop a tower, he worries that he'll spot a mob of angry actressexuals with torches gathering on the road below. They scream "Why haven't you written about _________???"

Such has been the feeling each Sunday night when Big Little Lies has aired on HBO, resplendent with actressing and yet, crickets. So before the mob gathers, we'll try to catch up really quick so we're on the weekly schedule...

This dizzying series feels too large to rush an essay about, so how about a list format to review? Yes? [Doesn't wait for response] Okay then, a list it is! (Keep the comments restricted to the this episode please)

Top Ten MVPs of Big Little Lies. Episode 1
In the first episode a murder at a grade school fundraiser draws police attention to an earlier incident on orientation day when four mothers Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern), Jane (Shailene Woodley), and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) get into an argument over what to do when Renata's daughter accuses Jane's son of trying to strangle her. 

Not Ranked: THE FRAMING DEVICE. Talking heads as Greek choruses and flashback structures for murder mysteries are so tired from overuse they could well hibernate for years. Just tell the damn story! 

10 Cinematography & Style
From the intense saturation of constantly shifting color from police lights at night to the interruption of a a tranquil beach shot with the sound of a screen blocking it out before the credits this whole thing looks and sounds as delicious as Alexander Skarsgård swears Nicole Kidman tastes.

You love it when I'm bad."

09 Finger Guns
From cartoonish-sneak attacks on his wife, to those finger guns, there's something both irressistibly fun and dangerous about Perry the manchild via Alexander Skarsgård's memorable body language. Somethings off in this "gooey" marriage. I guess we'll find out what. (By the end of the episode he's all glowering petulance, still a manchild but not so cute.)

08 Like Parent, Like Child
From the first episode it's clear that we're meant to draw parallels between children and parents. Iain Armitage is a great match for Shailene Woodley's caginess -- what is going on in that head? Especially precise on this parent/child point is that scene in the back of the car when Ziggy relaxes into a tiny smile when Reese Witherspoon's mini-Alpha me (Darby Camp, terrific as "Chloe") asks him about what kind of music he likes but doesn't let him answer: "Let me guess, Bowie". All of the child actors seem gifted so props to David Rubin's casting department.

07 Foreign & Familiar
I didn't know what to make AT ALL of the way too long shot / reverse shot of Jane and Celeste eyeballing each other but intriguing it was. Bonus points for Madeline's casual intimacy and control of the scene, foot up on Celeste's lap; she also has no idea what to make of the glances or Jane's train of thought "If only I were here..." but that's not going to stop her from controlling the conversation. One gets the sense in this scene that Madeline doesn't really understand Celeste, her best friend, either. A casual line from Madeline's husband at the dinner table later about Celeste being "wounded"," and the degree to which it pisses her off, reinforces this impression.

None of us really see things as they. We see things as we are."

06 Zoë Kravitz raised eyebrows
Zoe's punctuation of this scene, a conversaion with her husband about Madeline (her husband's ex) with lifted brow is too marvelous. This could have been a heavy line, or too thematically spot on. But Zoe playfully sends up her own zen yoga spirituality with those eyebrows, making the line both wise and self aware and funny and full of sympathy for her husband, too, and so many things at once; I'm in love.

Nice to meet you, Funny Jane."

05 Tom the Coffee Shop Guy
That feeling when someone is barely in a scene but you instantly want them in lots of scenes. I was heartbroken to discover that he's only in two episodes when I looked at IMDb. FYI that's Joseph Cross from Running With Scissors (2006) who clearly deserves bigger parts than he's getting. 

I'm not liked.

04 Real Estate Porn
Kudos to the Production Designer for making everyone's homes disgustingly drool worthy and specific, but also a rival and homogenous set of wealth displays: patio, view, windowed kitchen. Laura Dern is great (I guess that goes without saying). Her speech here reminds us that this show could easily have been called Feud: Renata and Madeline instead if we may borrow a suggestion from that other current series we'll talk about in which we are told that feuds are never about hatred, but about pain. 

03 The Incident
When a whole series is going to hinge on an inciting moment from which everything spins out of control, you better make that scene a corker and wow did they nail this orientation kerfuffle when Renata's daughter Amabella (that's not a typo, hee!) accuses Jane's son Ziggy of strangling her and it's instant war between mothers. So much groundwork has already been layed out by the actresses (Dern & Witherspoon, who last played mother & daugher in Wild, are relishing in their mutual hatred this time... even before the incident albeit it subtled undercutting ways). This scene is just thrilling from start to finish and with every reaction shot aside. 

I'll make sure everyone knows Renata is your best friend.

02 Napoleon Complex
Director Jean-Marc Vallée and his cinematographer Yves Belanger have so much fun accentuating the friction between Reese's tiny body and her skyscraper attitude. Everyone towers over her but she's always the biggest diva in the room. (The funny image of her limping beside companion/giantess Nicole Kidman with rolled ankle are also great)

01 Reese Witherspoon. Full Stop
Good god, woman! Genius. Witherspoon hasn't been this revelatory since... since... possibly ever. This easily rivals the best work of her career and if she's this strong in every episode it'll top them. You've got Man in the Moon's (1991) purity, Election's (1999) funny relentlessness, and Wild's (2015) emotional acuity. Literally everything about her late in the episode "I'm losing my babies" monologue to her eldest daughter (Kathryn Newton, also strong... loved her reaction to her mom stroking her hair) is perfect-perfect-perfect. So many shades and colors with so much fluidity and life in it as the scene progresses and changes as her second daughter enters. Perhaps they shouldn't bother with Best Actress in a Limited Series this year because she's surely Reese has already won it? 

NextEpisode 2 "Serious Mothering"

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Reader Comments (25)

I'm really enjoying this too... I could watch the end of the opening credits catwalk shot on endless loop. I was surprised how well Shailene help up here, I thought she was in over her head surrounded by all that talent. This is my favorite work of Zoe's also.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDrG

I'm in love with the series so far, particularly Witherspoon. Seriously-she's one of those actresses when she's on she's just dynamite. This is one of those cases.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Arresting domestic drama that doesn't veer into satire or melodrama. That's harder than it looks given the subject matter. It's all down to these naturalistic performances.

I don't think I've ever seen Kidman's "interview persona" leveraged so well in a character before. That unguarded moment with Woodley (at coffee, when Madeline is lost) reminded me of how Kidman expresses wonderment and revelation in real life.

More of that to come...in episode 3 her hyper-present acting is gripping. Kidman's greatest work rarely feels this *immediate*.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Yes Yes Good God Yes!! re. Witherspoon

I'd forgotten how much I used to love/mouth-agape-worship her from 1996 (Freeway) through to 2001 (Legally Blonde).

She used to be one of the most electric humans alive.

Then she decided she's only gonna play relentlessly huggably nice girls and I got bored/shamefully forgot she's a genius.

In my defence it seems that she too forgot that.

So glad she decided to start playing mean-ish narcissists again.

I thought she was quite good in both Mud and Wild but I wasn't completely blown away.

In this show however, literally her every single glance, turn and inflection is just GGGAAAHHH... Genius diva magic.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commentergoran

All the actresses are so gorgeous in "Big Little Lies." I can't believe Nicole Kidman is almost 50 and looks so phenomenal in this. Forever young.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Reese is knocking it out of the park! I am a super fan of the book so it took me a while to adjust to the show and the changes. But by episode 3, I'm loving it for being its own thing. It's just cool.

Reese is MVP but I thought Nicole deserves an Emmy for episode 3 alone - dear god the woman can act.

Loving Laura Dern as well!

I hope this show gets the success it deserves, it's got a lot of love and hard work in it.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMorganb

I finally get Shailene Woodley.

Reese is going to be fighting Sarandon for that Emmy, because, despite my monumental irritation with her, if she continues to play like this for the rest of the series, Sarandon is a serious threat to win herself. (And let's not forget American Crime and Anne of Green Gables.)

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

This show is a perfect example of how a group of perfectly cast capable actors can take mediocre material and make it absolutely exceptional. Everyone is astounding. Women and Men and Children. The therapy session in the third episode is one of the best moments in TV that we are likely to see this year. And I hear it gets better.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

The double header of Big Little Lies and Feud on Sunday nights has this gay boy in heaven! Nathaniel, each episode of Big Little Lies is better than the last - you are really in for a treat.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

And that Best Actress in a Miniseries/Movie category is just gonna be brutal at the Emmy Awards this year!!

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I KNOW RIGHT!! Gah this series is SO GOOD!
From the synopsis, I thought well only Nicole and Shailene will get the meaty dramatic part, but goddamn Reese is the MVP so far. Nicole is amazing too btw.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Oprah has HBO backing her in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And the playwright director of the piece George C Wolfe directed S Epatha Merkerson to sweep the big TV prizes: Emmy, Globe, SAG – so don't assume one of the Oscar winners are going to swoop it up at least at the Emmys.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Reese is doing career best work here. She's so so great.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I agree. Reese is MVP - though everyone else is good too. I'm so into this series right now. Love everything about it, and jealous of their homes!

As for Nicole - she's looking less plastic these days. I don't think she's looked good since about a decade ago. But amazingly, she's not looking as much like a scary wax figure in this.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKY

And I hope Woodley campaigns Lead where she belongs.

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

The series is starting to get better. Reese is excellent...Laura Dern excellent

For me Kidman is a cold fish. Emmy?? Maybe Reese

The therapy session best on TV I guess you don't watch much TV

As for Feud. I am not a great Lange fan, but she is way better than Sarandon IMO

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJill

And I hope Woodley campaigns Lead where she belongs.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I have enjoyed first two. Reese is the best. Nicole is fine but it seems cliche. Yes, she keeps getting younger. I agree that Shailene is good and has a lot of potential. The men seem like stock figures.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Shailene doesn't make the best of films but her talent has always been underrated. She is especially wonderful in The Spectacular Now but she is always very watchable and has a great screen presence.

There are strong actors all over; they don't all focus on indies and prestige pics.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

Is Feud already over? I heard it was not great.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

When the show opened with Merrin Dungey as the police detective, I thought Yes! This is a show that knows what I want, and I definitely want more of Merrin Dungey in good roles.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Yes, loving this. And while everyone is great, Witherspoon really is the MVP. Although I HATE the way they've written her youngest daughter. Sure, some kids have an "over it" kind of attitude, but the girl is 7. She could also be rambunctious, insecure, silly, etc. It's such lazy, look-how-clever-I-am writing to only make her so over everything.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Feud just started Faye. I loved the first episode. Second episode premieres Sunday night.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Witherspoon is so unnatural in this and I'm not really alone thinking it, I can't believe everyone is fawning over her here. "The Last Man on Earth" last episode had Kristen Wiig portray this somehow similar exaggerated character and even with all her mannerisms (and even though "TLMOE" is a comedy and "BLT" more of a serious show) it was less hammy. Laura Dern plays also her some sort of rival in "TLMOE", so I wonder if this was on purpose (she's really good in both), which leads me to say that you can easily see an actor's talent succeed despite their co-star. That's how in "Wild" I could believe Dern as being Witherspoon's mother yet not Witherspoon as her daughter, and again here, I can believe Dern as this wealthy sucessfull bussiness mother, but Witherspoon looks like the caricature of the soccer mom she's trying to play (I could even see Dern playing either role). As for the show, it's more of a movie star vehicle in TV, there are much better shows with peculiar characters and a mistery plot (and better acted), like the terrific "Search Party".

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

@Me34 - yes! Search Party is soooo good! Have you seen anything about a second season?

March 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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