A blur of flashing red and blue lights, flashes of women in pearls, and images of Elvis and detectives spin in a dizzying display of a dress-up event gone wrong in the opening minutes of the premiere episode of Big Little Lies. The HBO limited series is set to adapt the bestselling Liane Moriarty novel of the same name over the course of seven hour-long episodes.
The density and complexity of the novel certainly lends itself to being a limited series and not a movie that would inevitably leave out plot points for time. That said, the premiere episode starts off a little slow. It focuses on exposition, bringing both the drama of the “Blonde Bobs” — or crazy mothers — around which the murder mystery story revolves and the comedy — particularly from Reese Witherspoon, who plays the character of Madeline.
School orientation is a stressful day for everyone, including children and parents. Madeline proves as much by almost getting into a car crash with a car full of teens, including her daughter from her first marriage and then twisting her ankle. This is where the story starts, in a flashback after the first few minutes establish someone has died at a school fundraiser. This opening episode stays (mostly) true to the story, setting the tone for the tiny beach town of stuck-up mothers and their precocious children.
We meet Madeline, her daughters, her husband, ex-husband and his new wife, Bonnie, as well as Madeline’s best friend Celeste and new friend Jane. Each has kids in the same first grade class, where little Amabella is apparently choked on the first day by a boy in class. She places blame on Ziggy, Jane’s son, who denies having hurt the little girl.
That’s about as far as we get into the story, but in some beautifully shot flashback images, we get the idea that Jane and Celeste have some pretty haunting histories. The visual markers of this are perhaps less subtle than those in the book, but they certainly grab attention.
Differences from the book include the story happening in California instead of Australia and the kids being in first-grade instead of kindergarten (perhaps another year allows for them to be more mature and have more of a voice than in the book?). The series also softens the relationship between Madeline and her older daughter. While they’re sour with each other in the first half of the episode, they have a nice moment at the end that doesn’t really happen in the book until — well, ever. In the show, Ziggy also asks his mother why Amabella said he choked her when he didn’t. That doesn’t happen in the book. While that may seem like a minor detail, it’s really an important one for the overall story and works to make the viewer more sympathetic to Ziggy and Jane.
But the story is so good, the setup so well done, the child actors so good, and Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Madeline so comically spunky, there’s no doubt I’ll be watching the rest of the series.