"Big Little Lies"
Cast: Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line," "Wild"), Nicole Kidman ("The Hours," "To Die For"), Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants," "Divergent"), Laura Dern ("Rambling Rose," "Jurassic Park"), Zoe Kravitz ("Mad Max: Fury Road," "Divergent"), Alexander Skarsgard ("True Blood"), Adam Scott ("Parks and Recreation")
Airs: Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
The premise: Life in the ritzy community of Monterey, Calif., isn't exactly what it appears to be. At first glance, this seaside town seems idyllic. Lovely families and beautiful homes are easy to find, but this is a town full of gossip and plenty of secrets and betrayals.
"Big Little Lies" is based on the best-selling novel of the same name written by Liane Moriarty. The series was written for television and created by David E. Kelley ("LA Law," "Ally McBeal," "Picket Fences") and stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are two of the executive producers.
Highs: "Big Little Lies" is a series full of complex characters and relationships. The three leads are all fascinating, but for completely different reasons. Madeline (Witherspoon) loves to solve everyone else's problems, which leads to conflict with just about anyone outside her inner circle. Madeline takes on other parents at her daughter's elementary school, her ex-husband's new wife and even a school crossing guard. She's also not above using her children as a tool to manipulate others. Madeline can be a bulldog, but she's also funny and a caring, if misguided at times, parent.
Madeline's best friend is Celeste (Kidman). This once prominent attorney has given up her career to raise a family. Intelligent, beautiful and a kind mother, Celeste appears to have it all, but her marriage doesn't hold up to any scrutiny. Celeste's husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), seems like a nice guy but harbors a barely controllable rage. Perry is passive/aggressive, and sometimes just aggressive, leading to a volatile and complicated relationship.
New to Monterrey is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mother from nearby Santa Cruz. Jane becomes fast friends with Madeline and Celeste, but there's an air of mystery about her. She's secretive and elusive about her past. But Monterrey isn't a place for secrets. Everyone seems to know everything about every other person here. It's only a matter of time before the entire community, which seems to be drawn to drama, learns every detail of Jane's past.
These three characters are just the tip of the "Big Little Lies" iceberg. Secondary characters, particularly those played by Laura Dern and Adam Scott, shine and help give depth to Madeline, Celeste and Jane. Tying the trio together even further is a murder. Series writer Kelley teases the audience with it during the first four episodes, leaving viewers wondering who the victim and the culprit are. It adds a layer of complexity to an already intriguing storyline.
Lows: There are times watching this series that it felt like I was viewing "Real Housewives of Monterrey" instead of a gripping drama. The way the parents on "Big Little Lies" act is appalling. As one character puts it, they're not helicopter parents, they're kamikaze parents.
This is a community quick to overreact to perceived slights and condones over-the-top behavior. These moments are meant to provide a rivalry between women who wouldn't normally associate with each other, but they only serve to unnecessarily dampen the tension of the series.
Grade: A-. "Big Little Lies" is a tour de force, combining first-rate acting performances and excellent production values with elaborate story telling.
Nothing in this series is surface level; there's always more going on than it appears, which makes it addicting. An intricate series with ostentatious characters, "Big Little Lies" is appointment television.
Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.