Bubbling over with big-name stars, “Big Little Lies” is an enticing HBO limited series, one with echoes of several other prestige dramas. Featuring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in key roles, in terms of addictive appeal think of it as a more leisurely paced, soap-opera version of “True Detective.”
Based on a bestselling novel actually set in Australia, the locale has been moved to Monterey, California. Yet watching the action unfold – exposing secrets and, as one character delicately puts it, “bad blood in this community” – the show in some ways resembles “Broadchurch,” a British drama that peeled back layers in an otherwise unassuming, idyllic seaside town.
There’s also a parallel, appropriately, to “The Slap,” an Australian drama (later turned into a poor American one) that dealt with the escalating ramifications of an incident involving a young child. Here, it’s an accusation at the local elementary school that pits parents against each other, with other helicoptering moms and dads quickly choosing up sides.
Shailene Woodley plays Jane, a single mom whose son is singled out for allegedly choking another child. Madeline (Witherspoon) quickly befriends her and takes it upon herself to defend Jane against the other child’s mom, Renata (Laura Dern), who is ready to turn the incident into a holy war.
Like “Broadchurch,” at the heart of it all is a murder mystery. But the script by veteran TV ace David E. Kelley (directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, whose credits include the movie “Wild”) hides not only the murderer but also the victim, while third-party interviews with the police provide a kind of running chorus regarding what happened.
That subplot is vital but just one of the juicy threads. Others include Kidman as a wealthy woman with a younger husband (“True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgard); and Zoe Kravitz as the new wife of Witherspoon’s ex-husband (James Tupper), whose presence is a constant source of irritation.
The gaudy cast is uniformly good, but it’s Witherspoon who really stands out, playing a character reminiscent of what her “Legally Blonde” alter ego might have grown up to be, albeit with a nasty divorce and lots of resentment baked in. When another mom asks if she’s had plastic surgery, Madeline responds, “No, but you’re sweet to think I did.”
“Big Little Lies” could have easily devolved into clichés, like the mean-girl moms in a sitcom. As constructed, though, the story advances at an almost lyrical pace, investing the air kisses and preoccupation with appearances with greater gravity and allowing the characters to gradually develop over the six previewed hours of this seven-episode run.
“Big Little Lies” thus works on multiple levels, mixing its jaundiced view of these one-percenters with not just a whodunit but also a why-dunit that it’s in no hurry to reveal.
So while the project doesn’t break new ground, its look at TV’s latest batch of desperate housewives has the very HBO-like feel of big-league entertainment.
If “Big Little Lies” is the weekend’s major pay-cable endeavor, “Crashing” is the equivalent of playing small ball. The latest comedy from producer Judd Apatow (also responsible for “Girls”) stars Pete Holmes as a struggling stand-up, one whose life quickly unravels, forcing him to crash on the couch of other, better-known performers.
Light and breezy in a way that contrasts with many of cable’s dark not-exactly comedies, the show delves into the strange community of comedians and is punctuated by appearances by the likes of Sarah Silverman, Artie Lange and T.J. Miller, playing themselves.
Although TV has no shortage of shows built around comics and their lives – or for that matter, pulling back the curtain on showbiz – this one captures that moment before success kicks in. “Crashing” doesn’t look like HBO’s next great comedy, but based on its opening acts, it has the makings of a pretty good one.
“Big Little Lies” premieres February 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO, and “Crashing” premieres at 10:30 p.m. Like CNN, HBO is a division of Time Warner.