In the first act of the perfectly constructed original “Jurassic Park,” we are given a leisurely tour through the amusement park — watching the cars keep to their tracks, the dinosaurs at peace in their pens, pointing out where cafeteria and computers are housed: All place-setting mise en place for the mise-en-scène, as the breathtaking second half shows us all the structures we’ve just met upended — cars going off-road, dinos roaming free, a chaotic struggle for survival in the cafeteria complex.
The “Big Little Lies” premiere (Feb. 19) does similar work, with its careful introductions: First to its dreamy coastal town, then to the parents and nannies who drop off their children for the first day of school, and finally to the three women at the core of the story. (Laura Dern, the fourth, is off dinosaur-wrangling duty for now.)
Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is prickly, self-assured, and relentlessly chipper. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is reserved, glamorous, and stoic. New mom in town Jane (Shailene Woodley) is sincere, jumpy — and above all, kind.
We see them as they want to be seen: The time-tested trope of a newcomer being introduced to the others in the circle as comfortable as the arrival of Veronica (Camila Mendes) in the similarly-toned “Riverdale.” But, just like the Jurassic mommas or the comic book facade, is only worth exploring so as to appreciate their impending destruction, as the world tumbles down.
“Big Little Lies” rightly foregrounds its powerhouse female cast, including a few husbands in supporting roles, but also including the first graders themselves as a funhouse mirror to what’s going on with the parents. The parents’ squabbles, at least initially, are all in Madeline’s icy smile to her husband’s new partner, or Renata’s (Laura Dern) snarky asides: First graders are incapable of this level of subtlety, so when violence erupts, it does so with a physical attack on Renata’s young daughter.
Midway through the episode, one adult asks another, referring to the boy accused of this attack, “[H]ow do you know he’s not violent? Because he seemed sweet?” The question is facile — and as adults, we know the scariest predators are those who “seem” sweet. In fact, it’s those who we know to be sweet: Acquaintance rape, abusers in the family, the awfulness that nurtures itself in isolation.
The children on this show are at an age when things we “know inherently” are specifically taught: Right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, nice vs. mean. To children, the definitions and differences between are understood to be separate as day and night. But as adults know, and the show is fascinated by, a universe of actions and words exist at dawn or twilight; neither good nor bad, true not false.
And yet, the primary motivation for bonding between Madeline, Celeste, and Jane is that they each find one another nice. Jane rescues Madeline after she twists her ankle, and Madeline instantly compliments her kindness; Jane responds in kind to Madeline and Celeste’s invitation to join them for coffee — awed at the kindness of these two incomprehensibly beautiful women.
But of course this isn’t just a show about how the same rules that affect elementary school morality exist, twisted and ignored, in the adult world: As in every small-town noir — from “Twin Peaks” and “Veronica Mars” to “Desperate Housewives,” “Pretty Little Liars,” and “Riverdale” — there has to be a body.
The twist here is that — unlike the story-starting deaths of Laura Palmer or Alison DiLaurentis or Jason Blossom — the main episodes of this show are flashbacks to a time before the murder. We don’t yet know who the victim is, let alone the circumstances of the death — two important clues needed before whodunnit even becomes a question to ask.
Even without more knowledge of the murder itself, the themes of the show emerge handily: Renata, devastated by the bruises on her daughter’s neck from an unknown assailant, lectures the assembled parents and children that “little boys don’t go around hurting little girls.” But of course they always have, and always will; and so too will women hurt other women, and men hurt women, and everybody hurts everybody. So far, the only visible wounds are those of Renata’s daughter and Madeline’s injured ankle; small symptoms of a larger network of pain that we know is coming down on everyone in this enterprise.
And yet, as in “Jurassic Park,” the dangers and pain and terror have always been there: Just behind the glass, close enough to spike our adrenaline but not enough to cause real danger. Jane’s arrival in town is, some characters see, retroactively the moment everything changed; the tipping point when the darkness that’s always been all around can finally be seen by the residents of this preternaturally sunny town.
The addition of a murder — on school property, no less — means nobody can pretend, anymore, that it isn’t really there… Or ignore the fact that it always was.
The seven-episode miniseries “Big Little Lies” is based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel of the same name, and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.