TV Review: Big Little Lies - Big cast, Little Lies, compulsive viewing

Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Mackenzie in the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies.

Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Mackenzie in the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies.

School has long been a popular setting for television comedies, but new US series Big Little Lies (Sundays, 8.30pm, SoHo, and streaming on Neon) takes it to a  darker level with its tale of elementary school, alpha mummies. 

When a new boy at school is accused of trying to choke a classmate, the daughter of the formidable Renata (Laura Dern), battle lines are drawn.  It quickly becomes apparent that all is not well in these seemingly perfect lives – scratch the surface and there's a seething mass of insecurities; anxieties and resentments. 

From the chirpy, pert Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) who likes to "lord it over the career mums", to the fragile Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who spends all her time uploading carefully curated images of her kids to social media  – they've all got their problems.  Meanwhile newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley), whose son is the one accused of the choking incident, has some mysterious backstory going on. 

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in Big Little Lies.
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Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in Big Little Lies.

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The characters are intriguing and the performances are great – particularly from Kidman and Witherspoon.  It draws you into the story and keeps you watching as characters seem to unravel.  But just in case that's not enough, it all kicks off with a murder scene at a school fundraiser. One of the mums is dead, but we don't know who and we don't why.  From there, it's all told in flashback, interweaved with various witnesses talking to the police. The school mums are the "Olympic athletes of grudges," one tells us.

And it touches on a few issues too.  Sure these women might be pretty privileged and their problems might seem trivial to the judgementally high-minded, but there are themes here that most mothers will recognise.  From the guilt of career mum Renata, to the melancholy of kids growing up and growing away.  "What people don't tell you is you lose your children," says Madeline, spurned by her sullen, teenage daughter.  Underneath the bitchiness, the dark comedy and the whodunnit – this is also a look at motherhood in all its confusing, joyful and guilt-inducing complexity.  

This is a great little series.  It's beautiful to watch with its dreamily rolling ocean scenes and magnificent views and it's stuffed with great characters and a story that cracks along.  I love it.

Vice Principals is ideal for those who like their comedy slapstick, vicious and not all that funny.
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Vice Principals is ideal for those who like their comedy slapstick, vicious and not all that funny.

Also focusing on school-related power struggles is US comedy Vice Principals (now available on Neon).  But this time, it's the teachers, not the parents.

When the principal retires from North Jackson High School, it leaves two vice principals – Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) –  vying for his position.  Gamby is a square-headed, tank top-clad type who permanently has a sports whistle around his neck.  Russell wears a bow tie.  Everyday.  They're neither liked, nor respected.

Soon, when a more qualified principal is recruited externally, they team up to try and force her out.  They kick off by burning her house down.  Yep, subtle isn't a theme here, but if you like your comedy slapstick, vicious and not all that funny – make this one to watch. 

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 - Stuff

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