Melodrama is perhaps the most derided genre there is. Often, critics use the word as a euphemism for entertainment with poorly written, on-the-nose dialogue and exaggerated emotions and performances. But when done right, melodrama draws audiences in and establishes an irresistible tone while exploring narratives with rich themes.
Written by David E. Kelley from Liane Moriarty’s novella, Big Little Lies certainly has large emotions. At certain times, it feels like scenes exist solely for the murderers’ row of actresses (which includes—deep breath—Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley) to chew every piece of scenery in sight. However, every emotion is grounded and true to character. The show’s central characters—later dubbed the “Monterey Five” in season two—each has her own issues and conflicts to work through, including rape, spousal abuse, and bullying. Big Little Lies deals with these themes sensitively and insightfully, elevating what could have been soapy melodrama (in the pejorative sense) to prestige television.
The first season (directed entirely by Jean-Marc Vallée) focuses on a suspected murder. Over the course of the season, the audience gets hints and clues as to who the victim might have been and what the possible motives are, though Kelley and Moriarty’s primary interest is establishing and exploring the world: Affluent families who have deep-seated issues and who would do anything for their children. Most of the conflicts arise from mothers reacting to other mothers slighting them and their kids. The show also jumps back and forth in time as it explores the central question of what happened and whom it happened to, and the achronological structure adds a stylistic flourish that keeps things interesting. It’s almost as if the entire first season is centered on a “Who shot J.R.?”-style mystery, but the victim’s identity is also obfuscated.
At the very least, Big Little Lies is worth a watch because of the sheer star-power involved. There has never been a more talented group of actors on a television show, and season 2’s (directed by Andrea Arnold) addition of Meryl Streep confirms it. At times, the series may dip into soap and melodrama, but it feels earned every step of the way. If the story is grounded in character, the audience will follow.