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Best actresses tell better lies

Watch 'Big Little Lies' for the exceptional and timeless actresses like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley

Reese Witherspoon (centre), Nicole Kidman (right) in a still from ‘Big Little Lies’.
Reese Witherspoon (centre), Nicole Kidman (right) in a still from ‘Big Little Lies’.

What happens to the old heroes?

What happens when new gunslingers enter the fray? Better prepared, better bred, standing on the shoulders of giants to accomplish the undreamt. To repurpose not just basics but also rules. When the goalposts for greatness are repositioned, what happens to the old greats?

This I often ponder in the context of sport, as new kids who start out younger, armed with edgier diets and carbon-fibre weaponry, come along every couple of decades and statistically obliterate legends who lived on our teenage walls. With television better now than ever, we are witnessing creators overhaul all that once existed in order to leap ahead and play fast and loose with a paradigm or two.

In sum: After being wowed by Noah Hawley—the creator of the sublime series Fargo and the brand new astonishment Legion—will watching the work of Aaron Sorkin ever feel as satisfying again? Or will it just be quaint “old TV", something we used to love when none of us knew better?

It is a tough question, particularly considering how unprecedentedly the quality of serialized entertainment has skyrocketed, compared to, say, literature or cinema or music. Which is why I struggled with a new miniseries crafted by the one-time TV legend, David E. Kelley. L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Doogie Howser, M.D., The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal… Kelley did it all, his name certifying competence and watchability (that, plus he married Michelle Pfeiffer. The man will forever remain a personal hero).

Kelley’s new show is called Big Little Lies, and can be watched on Hotstar and on Star World Premiere on Tuesday nights. It’s an intriguing series—about motherhood and murder—starring some truly sensational actresses. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley all show up to lift the material the way only they can, and yet, despite the ladies and the premise and the plotting, the show feels unwieldy and a tad tiresome.

This is principally because of the old-school expository dialogue. Husbands hang out with wives talking about how they met, neatly and helpfully unpacking emotional baggage for us to sift through, instead of talking like people talk. There is too much underlining and too little dryness, and in comparison to better shows of the day, this sounds like a first draft in need of polish. It slots seamlessly into Kelley’s legacy; this writing would not be out of place in Picket Fences, except that was two dozen years ago.

However, once I started treating this kind of expository and foolproof storytelling as a stylistic device—therefore not cringing every time things were spelt out too transparently—I began to enjoy what Big Little Lies offered. The set-up and storytelling method is flat-out fantastic. Parents of schoolchildren at a public school in an idyllic town are embroiled in rivalry and oneupmanship and much snark, but we learn about them during a murder investigation. Somebody is dead, and the townsfolk are telling us stories. Investigations based on gossip? Delicious.

Here’s the best part. We don’t know who the murderer is, of course, which makes us watch the show while combing it for clues to a homicidal outburst, but—in a twist of genius—we don’t know who has been murdered either. This concealing of the victim, in a show rife with petty jealousy and gossip and many a malcontent, means that the whodunnit question has been supplanted by an arguably sharper question: Who would we rather see die?

Witherspoon—as Madeline Martha Mackenzie, a woman who insists on using all three of her alliterative names—is brilliant, Kidman is haunting and gorgeous, sexier than we’ve seen her in a long time, and it is a treat to watch Dern flail about in a part so venomous. The way she insists on saying “Madelyne"—never Madeline, as if Madeline herself gets it wrong—is, in itself, superb. It’s hardly ever a hiss but forever skating on the edge of being one.

To me, six episodes in and waiting for the finale, Big Little Lies is motoring ahead like a paperback best-seller. I have my picks for people I would want to see kill and people I would like to see get killed, and even if David E. Kelley’s show isn’t the sharpest thing on television, this double-bluff of hiding murderer and murderee deserves to be co-opted by sneakier writers.

Watch it for these exceptional and timeless actresses, and the commitment with which they tackle these character-types. It’s some of the finest acting you’ll see in one place. What happens to old heroes, I asked? Sometimes they just get better.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on and fortnightly in print

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